Music for Parking Lots

If you’ve gotten into a new car recently, you’ve noticed that there is a change that has occurred over just the past few years. As there is a high likelihood that the vehicle is started by a keyfob rather than a key that is inserted into a cylinder on the steering column or on the instrument panel, the car “recognizes” that you have the fob. In fact, in the case of many vehicles, before you open the door, the car “wakes up” and will automatically unlock the door and if it is dark out, initiate a lighting routine so that your visibility is enhanced.

Upon getting behind the wheel, the car “greets” you. This is where the big change has happened. There is likely to be a message on a screen that welcomes you. And there is a series of sounds that acknowledge that you have arrived in the vehicle.

These sounds are an interesting thing. The beeps and buzzers that have long been characteristic of cars (e.g., seatbelt warning; you’ve left the lights on after you’ve shut off the vehicle; your door is ajar) have given way to more mellifluous sounds. These are not some random noises that have been selected for activation. There are sound signatures that identify the brand (were you to climb in another vehicle of the same vintage from the same brand—say a 2021 Kia Sorrento and a Kia K5—you would hear the same micro melody), as well as the various whooshes and whirs that are to make you think that you’re not just getting ready to go to the store to buy some milk but to be whisked away on some sort of magical adventure.

The company that has made an absolute art of the musical sounds within a vehicle is Lincoln. It didn’t hire some little-known creator of digital sounds that are encoded on a chip that is part of a vehicle’s body control module in order to create the audio ambience. Rather, Lincoln hired musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for the automotive soundscape that is part of its vehicles’ signature. The company even has a position called “supervisor, vehicle harmony.”

There were three musicians selected for the creation of the audio back in 2018: Adrienne Rönmark, violin; Eric Nowlin, principal viola; and Joseph Becker, principal percussion. They recorded about 125 short pieces that were then narrowed down to six, with the sounds being categorized into three use cases: non-critical, soft-warning and hard warning. These bits of soundscapes are used for about 25 features, things like whether your seatbelt is unbuckled or the fuel filler door is opened.

When the sounds were introduced, Joseph Becker said, “One of the really interesting parts of this is we’re changing language into music. There’s a list of words that they would like to convey, and we have a bunch of sounds, and we just have to experiment to have those two match up so that the experience is good for the driver.”

“Language into music.” Not the sort of thing that you’d associate with an SUV, but there it is.

Lotus, the producer of limited-production sports cars, is taking another approach to sounds for the all-electric Evija “hypercar” (which simply means: You can’t afford it). It has hired British music producer Patrick Patrikios to create a series of sound signatures for the sportscar.

The initial brief for the producer, who has worked with performers including Olly Murs, Sia, Britney Spears, Pixie Lott and Little Mix, was to create a sound sweep for the acceleration of the car, which can go from 0 to 186 mph in under nine seconds. In a car with an internal combustion engine you hear the engine note as well as the sound of the gears shifting (the increasing whine that drops and builds again, a sequence that is repeated until all of the gears have been sequenced). In an electric car there are no such sounds as it is simply the whir of the electric motors and no transmission gear shifting because the transmission generally has just one or two gears. (Sometimes driving an electric vehicle on a freeway can be disconcerting as when you glance at the speedometer and suddenly see how fast you are going, something that you’ve not realized because you didn’t hear the audio cues that you associate with speed: audio provides more than entertainment, welcomes and warnings inside the cabin of a car.)

What Patrikios has done is record the sounds of a Lotus Type 49 Formula 1 race car from the late 1960s, a car powered by a Lotus-developed Cosworth-Ford DFV V8 engine, then digitally manipulated it so that would coordinate with the speed of the Evija. As he put it: “There’s a purity to that V8, a raw edge and an emotion that stirs something in your soul, just like the best songs.” Raw power.

He explained, “I adjusted the replay speeds and digital filtering of the Type 49 to generate a soundscape for the Evija – it was a very organic process. We all wanted something to spark an emotional connection between car and driver. Sound is hugely influential when it comes to creating and forming emotions, to enrich that bond that’s such a critical part of the Lotus experience.”

They went beyond just the sounds of speed to creating individual chimes and tones for an array of things in the car, analogous to the Lincoln approach.

John Cage’s three-movement composition 4’33” (1952) is performed musicians who don’t play their instruments. It is meant, in effect, to foreground the sounds that surround us.

Brian Eno’s Music for Airports (1978) was the first of his “ambient music” recordings, meant to create an environment without focus on the music itself.

It seems now that the music being created for vehicles, music that is often shorter than the length of a TikTok video before the available time was quadrupled, is the new ambient soundscape that both deserves recognition yet is meant to be part of the environment. Even if you don’t listen, you hear it.

Photo via Lotus.

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