Automobile as stylus?
September 18, 2006 7:10 AM   Subscribe

Calling all research pros! Driving over 'rumblestrips' that are spaced to produce a tune?! Help me find more specific information on the 'Musical Highway' in Villepinte, France!

Ok, this is sort of an epic 'more inside,' but bear with me, I'm hoping there's some avenue of research I'm not thinking of.


I was first introduced to this concept when Paul Collins mentioned it briefly in a recent Believer piece ("A Brief History of Rock Music"). Here's what Collins had to say:

"Engineers in the Paris suburb of Villepinte make clever use of road noise between tires and crushed rock asphalt by designing a corrugated ?euphonic road? surface that gives a twenty-eight-note melody when driven over. Complaints by neighbors result in the road being resurfaced in 2002. A subsequent visit establishes that one can still faintly hear the melody when the road is driven over."

I was intrigued by this idea, so I've since researched it a bit and found a few other articles mentioning this stretch of road, but it seems to me that an idea as novel (and as recently executed) as this should have left more of a footprint on the internet. I know if were one of the responsible engineers, I'd have taken video. I'm suspicious that my inability to search in French may be keeping me from the best results.


Article 1 (Sharke, Mechanical Engineering Magazine, April 2003 -- This one has the most specific info.)

Article 2 (Glaskin, "New Scientist" article, February 2004 -- This one isn't available online, but I'll quote the relevant sections)

"Once upon a time there was a singing road. Every time a vehicle drove along it, the road sang a catchy tune, in stereo, that left drivers humming happily for days. But not everyone loved its song, and the people who lived nearby began to get irritated with the road for singing the same thing, all day, every day. Eventually they got so angry that they complained to the mayor, who issued an order to smother the road beneath a layer of hot asphalt. The road never sang again."

"This story is not completely true. It turns out that the road -- built in 2000 in a Paris suburb called Villepinte -- was not totally silenced when it was resurfaced in 2002. Visit Villepinte today and, if you listen carefully, you can sometimes hear the faint 28-note melody created by tyres racing over the pattern of corrugations on its surface."

"The musical highway was a bold attempt to turn the noise produced by a busy road into something pleasurable. Unfortunately, it only served to highlight a
growing problem. While vehicle designers have worked hard to quieten engines and muffle exhausts, they have been less successful elsewhere. The whoosh, swish and zizz of rubber on asphalt or concrete now accounts for more than half the noise that vehicles create, and as road building and car sales continue to boom -- particularly in Asia and the US -- noise created at the road surface is turning into a global problem. So the next great challenge for automotive engineers is to learn how tyre and tarmac can be made to work together to keep the peace."

"...we may not have heard the last of the singing road. A few years ago, a large US entertainment corporation asked one of Sandberg's American colleagues to create a corrugated road surface at the entrance to one of its theme parks -- one that could play "zip-a-dee-do-dah" as cars drove over it. He declined. Perhaps he had learned the lesson from Villepinte: the only thing we will ever want to hear from a highway is the sound of silence."

Everything in the Collins article seems to come from these two pieces, and knowing his research prowess, that probably doesn't bode well for finding out more. Will that stop me? ONWARD!


The endgame of all this ridiculous groping for information is to find video and / or audio of the road in action. That would just make my YEAR.

Thus far, the only non-textual evidence I've found of the road's existence is this photo, published alongside the Paul Sharke article in Mechanical Engineering Magazine.

The caption explains that "Drivers approaching the musical road near Paris are instructed to stay between solid lines to hear their tires play a melody. The tone deaf can follow a dotted route to play only road and tire noise."


The Paul Sharke article also cites the composer of the music 'pressed' into the road as a person named Gaellic Guillerm. A brief googling reveals no other results.

The one prospect I haven't pursued to a dead end yet is chapter 31.8 of this book, "The Tyre/Road Noise Reference Book" (Contents). Since the cost of the book is $220 I can't justify the expense just to see if a single chapter clears up this trivial curiousity. I've tried searching libraries, but no luck around these parts.

...and that's everything my feeble research efforts have thus far been able to uncover.


If everything in these articles is assumed to be accurate, here is what I know so far:

- Dedicated in 2000
- The tune was composed by Gaellic Guillerm
- It consisted of 12 seconds of stereophonic (!) music
- The piece had a 28-note melody.
- The road was resurfaced in 2002.
- Subsequent visits to the site claim the tune is still faintly audible

That's it. Hope me?
posted by adamkempa to Travel & Transportation (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Try a search for "musical road tining". Rumblestrips can only give a rhythmic beat for a short distance and only if they are very slight as opposed to the typical rumblestrips. Otherwise, typical rumblestrips are very jarring.

Tining on the other hand is more akin to using the suto as a stylus and gives a more pleasing tonal variation. Realistically though, depending on the type of tread you have on the car will give different tonalities. Tining is created on a concrete pavement either by diamond grinding or by using a fork-like device to embed slight grooves into the still wet concrete after paving.
posted by JJ86 at 7:57 AM on September 18, 2006

Hey for what it's worth, the end of Route 280 in Newark, NJ has (or had, in the early '90s), a sequence of three tuned rumblestrips.
posted by Mister_A at 10:23 AM on September 18, 2006

Related project in Arlington, VA.
posted by zoinks at 4:02 PM on September 18, 2006

I wrote to both the mayor of Villepinte and to a Mr Ulf Sandberg (of "Tyre/Road Noise" fame) to see if they can give any more information.
posted by baklavabaklava at 12:44 AM on September 19, 2006

Well, here's what I found out. The road certainly exists, or existed. Why there is little about it on the internet, I haven't a clue-- certainly there doesn't seem to be anything in French, and the only references were the Anglophone articles you already found. So here is what I can tell you:

- The mayor of Villepinte, Madame Valleton, writes that the road is on boulevard L et D Casanova, next to the garbage dump. She mentions nothing about resurfacing, saying only that the road has "suffered the effects of time".

- U. Sandberg, of the $220 tome, writes that the musical road is indeed on boulevard Laurent and Danielle Casanova (after Danielle Casanova, the militant Corsican Communist-- a few blocks up you'll find Sacco and Vanzetti avenue!), just below Ethel and Julius Rosenberg Avenue (after the American Communists executed by the U.S. government for spilling nuclear secrets) and a street which no longer exists. Sandberg very helpfully forwarded me two documents: firstly a map of the area in question in Villepinte, showing the musical road in dotted red lines, and second, a Google Earth shot of the area with a yellow arrow marking the road. Sandberg writes that the green-roofed buildings along the musical road are part of an indoor tennis complex; I assume the dirt area next to it is the municipal dump mentioned by Madame the Mayor. There appear to be undulations of some sort on the road in the Google Earth photo; however, we don't know when it was taken (Sandberg speculates 2005 or early 2006: he also is certain these are not the "original road corrugations", since on his visit in May 2002, they were somewhat destroyed; they may, however, be some sort of modification of the original musical road, or, indeed, something else altogether). Sandberg was very helpful and forthcoming about the road, but he only visited the area after the original construction was modified, so he has no first-hand account of the musical part.

- As for the mysterious composer, "Gaellic Guillerm" is unknown to the internet. There is a circus performer in France named Johann Le Guillerm; on a Breton-inspired whim I tried "Gaellic Le Guillerm", who makes an appearance on the internet by being involved in putting on a circus show ("Cirque O") at the KĂžbenhavns Internationale Teater in Copenhegan in 1992, along with Johann. I can't say if the two are related, the same man, or even if Le Guillerm is Guillerm and the 'le' was dropped by a careless Anglophone writer in the articles you found-- but this may be either a lead or a red herring. However, I certainly wouldn't put it past a practicioner of the circus arts to compose music for roadway and conveyance.

- In conclusion: still no ear-witness account of the music, which is maybe not surprising, considering the road existed in that state for less than two years in a small town on a road primarily used to haul garbage to the dump. I still haven't found anything in the French press on the road, which is surprising, but the French were slow to take to the internet, so that might explain the lack of contemporary sources circa 2000. However, we know it existed; we know it still exists in some form or other. If your ultimate goal is video or audio of the road in its heyday, you may be out of luck since the time period was so small and the location so obscure. If you're content with seeing and hearing the area as it is to-day, without going yourself, your best bet may be to befriend a Villepintois(e) over the internet and convince them to bring a video camera along next time they haul some garbage down to the dump. Or there may be MeFites in Paris who wouldn't mind an afternoon in the neuf-trois to help you out.

Hope this helps.
posted by baklavabaklava at 11:45 AM on September 21, 2006

Holy cats!!
Thanks for all that!
posted by adamkempa at 12:21 PM on September 21, 2006

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