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Beep, Beep

Traffic is the biggest brass band on the streets. In between swelling swooshes of many mediums, vehicles of every key sing onomatopoeic songs―car horn honks, backup truck beeps, klaxon awoogas, train choos, and bicycle bell brrngs―all day and all night and all afternoon, fading in and fading out, with timbres thrown back to the Jazz Era, when everything was a-beepin’ and a-boppin’ with syncopated stop-sign rests, and Doppler shift decays like the slide of a trombone on the very last ictus, into the howling road rhythms ahead.

The classic horn of popular automobiles (what you would call a honk as opposed to a beep) is tuned between a Major and Minor Third Interval. The oft-played double beat is like that of a Morse Code “A” (dit, dah (· —)), and was probably copied from railroad engineer beats. It can be notated as below: quaver, crotchet rest, crotchet, quaver rest, crotchet rest, assuming we’re in 4/4 time.

Minor Third = 300 cents
Car Horn Third = 362 cents
Major Third = 400 cents

It is not quite the happy Major Third , nor is it the sad Minor Third, but rather somewhere in between, a unique Car Horn Third, that evokes the spectrum of triadic emotions. At around 360 cents, almost halfway between Major and Minor, the Car Horn Third is similar to an Hendrix Chord which features both Thirds.

The car horn harmony was intentionally tuned like other Major Thirds in our American soundscape―the door bell, shop ding, and telephone dial tone―for its likeness to the third measure of the bell song Westminster Quarters. Ding, dong. The Major Third is found early in the Harmonic Series, making it a consonant interval, perfect for soothing the savage motorist.

Next we have the backup beep. Unlike the electric horn timbres of cars, trucks, buses, and ships, the backup beep is a pure sine wave, a series of F#6′s in an even crotcheted tempo.

If the Electric Tonic of America is a flatted B, then the F# reversal tone of trucks and buses forms a Perfect fifth interval―the Dominant. There are many different car horns, but the popular one above forms a Major 7th Interval with the Grid. Thus, the most popular chord of the streets is a B Major 7th. Everything is attuned according to the buzzing of the bees.

I like Traffic.

traffic