The Musical Road
In Lancaster, California, you can drive down a stretch of Musical Road that plays the William Tell Overture. Well, kind of.
Way back in 2008, Honda, as a promotion for the new Civic, decided they were going to show off a bit. They commissioned some engineers to create a section of Lancaster’s Avenue K that, when driven over at a given speed, would play music.
They called it the Civic Musical Road, and the piece of music chosen for this stunt was the finale of the William Tell Overture by Rossini — better known to 1950s television audiences as the theme to the Lone Ranger. But what happened to this iconic piece of music should have both Gioachino Rossini and Clayton Moore turning in their graves.
The (First) Problem with the Musical Road
The main problem is that the song that plays as one drives over the quarter-mile length of Lancaster’s Musical Road simply sounds horrid. Give it a listen as the ExplorerMobile tools along its length at the recommended speed of 55 miles per hour:
Yikes. That last note really hurts.
So What Went Wrong?
This effect happens due to a series of grooves cut into the road at precise intervals, the same thing that is done to create “rumble strips” used to alert inattentive or distracted drivers that they’re about to drive off the road.
Figuring out how to play a song with grooves in asphalt is a fairly simple mathematical task. But it turns out that whoever calculated the intervals for these particular grooves failed to factor in the width of the groove itself. Or maybe failed to communicate that information properly to whoever was responsible for cutting the grooves.
In either case, not one member of the team responsible for actually making this road noticed. Or maybe they did and just didn’t care.
This oversight means that as a car drives over these grooves, the notes are progressively further spaced apart than intended. By the time you hit that final (way) out-of-tune note, the song bears only the slightest resemblance to Rossini’s famous composition.
The Second Problem with the Musical Road
The road was first created on Avenue K between 60th and 70th Streets in Lancaster on September 5, 2008. And that’s when the other problem with the Civic Musical Road came to light. It’s really loud. So loud that residents complained. They complained so much, the whole thing was paved over on September 23, just three weeks later.
Keep in mind Honda’s advertising campaign didn’t even launch until October 12.
So Let’s Try This Again!
But a good bad project doesn’t die easily, and on October 15, a team of engineers re-created the Musical Road just two miles away on Avenue G near 30th Street. There are no homes in the immediate vicinity of the relocated road. In fact, it feels as if it’s out in the middle of nowhere. Which it kind of is.
Now this relocation presented the contributing engineers with a great opportunity to correct the variation in intervals and create something that actually resembled the William Tell Overture. But no one did that. The new Musical Road was recreated to sound exactly as bad as its first iteration.
Interestingly, even though the project was initially called the Civic Musical Road, the current sign on display at this new, current location just says “The Musical Road.”
David Simmons-Duffin, an associate professor of theoretical physics at Caltech with a keen interest in musical frequencies, assessed the curious case of this Musical Road in a December 23, 2008 blog post titled Honda Needs a Tune-Up. He goes deep (like really deep) into the analysis of just what went wrong, how it could have been fixed, and Honda’s cover up of the results in the commercial that aired. Scandalous!
Simmons-Duffin is also quick to point out that even though it’s recommended to drive over the road at 55 miles per hour, the song sounds a lot better if you get up to 67 miles per hour.
So keep that in mind if you ever find yourself driving through the northern reaches of Los Angeles County and feel like swinging by Lancaster’s Musical Road to experience it for yourself.
Lancaster Musical Road
- Avenue G and 30th Street, Lancaster
- GPS Coordinates: 34.7331744,-118.1962153 [ Google Maps ]
- what3words: ///perspire.farewell.grafting