Sounding out space with the trains of Tokyo

Apropos of M. Nova’s post on the semiotics of heard events, I wanted to briefly namecheck the use of brief, station-specific melodies as orienting cues by JR East (and, indeed, by other Japanese railways).

These jingles, repeated on the platform throughout the interval between the approach and departure of a train, liminally help a passenger perceive that they’ve arrived at their home station. They tend to the upbeat, in the candy-colored Japanese mode, but many have an undercurrent of weary-salaryman melancholy that I don’t believe I’m projecting onto them.

Don’t believe me? You can buy CDs of the jingles here and have a listen for yourself. Sometimes the otaku impulse is a wonderful thing. (I should also note that these melodies also feature prominently in the notorious Boxes & Arrows piece that set me off last year. And the less said about that, the better.)

4 responses to “Sounding out space with the trains of Tokyo”

  1. Josh Ellis says :

    Did you ever see the aural server log interpreter that some guy wrote around the turn of the century? It parsed an Apache server log and turned the events into an aural landscape — specifically a rain forest, as I remember. So the server load was represented by rain — louder rain, more visitors. CGI calls were bird calls. And unauthorized or malicious hits registered as the growl of a leopard.

    The idea was that the server could be monitored without actually having to sit and watch the log, which is literally brain-numbing. The guy discovered that sysadmins were more likely to register the sound of a dangerous animal than a line on a server log, and act accordingly.

    I’m really intrigued by using ambient audio environments to represent information. There’s a cool MIDI interface out there (whose name I can’t remember) that allows you to connect up things like thermometers, humidity sensors, and motion detectors to MIDI.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to have ambient audio cues that changed based on, say, the heat and humidity in the air?

    (Sidenote: before I actually *heard* Eno’s “Music For Airports”, I misunderstood an article on it and thought it was supposed to be music made from airport sounds. Upon reflection now, wouldn’t it be cool if airports used Enoesque audio cues instead of blaring hideous noise at you through loudspeakers?)

  2. speedbird says :

    Heh, I think that was one of those “it steam engines when it’s steam engine time” things. Me and Jon Olson came up with the same idea in Oakland in ’99, and I know we weren’t the only ones.

  3. Josh Ellis says :

    Where this fails is that a lot of people — like me — listen to music while they work.

    So how do you design an auditory cue system that doesn’t interfere with music? Atonal, perhaps?

  4. Bri Hunziker says :

    If you’d rather not spring for purchasing the CD, recordings of most of the melodies for the various JR East lines are available here:

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