article-imageMusical Road sign in Japan (photograph by Tzuhsun Hsu) 

While driving in Japan you may see a treble clef curiously gracing a road sign or painted right on the asphalt, and then hear a shaky tune resonating through the vehicle. These musical roads can also be found in the United States, South Korea, and Denmark, although Japan is really the hub for humming highways with over 20 musical roads in the country.

The most famous, however, is likely the “William Tell Overture” finale built into a road in Lancaster, California. The musical roads in Japan and South Korea were designed to keep drivers alert on treacherous turns and stretches of highway where accidents commonly occur, similar to the rumble strips that give a “tactile vibration” to warn fatigued motorists who are veering off the road or coming up to a hazardous area. The Lancaster road, on the other hand, was made for a Honda Civic commercial. But all of them require driving at the speed limit to hear the music, whether it’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in South Korea or fragments of a Japanese pop song.

article-imageA melody road in Japan (photograph by kermiekitty/Flickr user)

The first of these roads on record — the pleasingly named Asphaltophone — was made in 1995 in Denmark by artists Steen Krarup Jensen and Jakob Freud-Magnus, who strategically spaced out raised markers to turn the road into an instrument. The principle for all the musical roads, even as they’ve gotten more elaborate, has stayed the same. As ABC News explained, the distance between the grooves, which has to be between 5.3 and 10.6 centimeters, creates the melody, and the rhythm is made by the length of those grooves, resonating in the car.

Not all musical roads are equal in their effectiveness; sometimes the melody is distorted into an off-key unpleasantness. You can listen to a few below, and we also recommend visiting the round up of musical roads on the sound tourism site of Trevor Cox, who we recently spoke to about his new book on the sonic wonders of the world.

Tune into more of the world’s musical wonders on Atlas Obscura >