Dissecting the car horn sound!

Why does the Car Horn Sound the Way it Does?

Ah, the car horn! It is the most common and hence, often the most taken-for-granted sound in the urban soundscape.

Owing to the frequency of usage of the car horn, especially in countries like China and India where drivers tend to keep one hand on the horn at all times, armed and ready, the sound of the car horn has slowly faded into our collective subconscious.

A result of this lack of acknowledgement of the sound of the car horn at par with the other more musical sounds that we treasure and yearn for is a lack of understanding of what this sound is and how it was designed. The car horn is designed via an extremely precise science of sound design and acoustics for very specific reasons, which includes everything from a cultural environment to brand identity and price range of the car.

Here, we look at some of the fundamental aspects that define the car horn sound and the background behind this ubiquitous yet often misunderstood and equally misused auditory signal of the modern world.

The Musical Foundations of the Car Horn

On the musical scale, the car horn has its unique note!

The tuning of the car horn sound is in most cases adjusted to ensure that it lies between what is known as the “Major Third” and a “Minor Third” on the musical scale.

For those of you who might not have plumbed into the mysteries of musical notations, yet, let’s dissect what a “major”, “minor” and a “third” is.

A “third” is a musical arrangement of three different notes which occupy three lines on the notation sheet, indicating three different pitches or frequencies. In simpler and more visual terms, if you hold three keys on a piano or a keyboard, for instance, the three notes of C, D and E, you are holding a third.

However, sometimes there are four notes in a third. Strange, isn’t it?

Piano keys references

This is because on the keyboard or piano, in the case of a “Major” third, if you want to cover the interval between C, D and E, you have to hold four keys, namely C# (black key), D (white key), D# (black key) and E (white key). On the other hand, a “Minor” third includes only three keys, for instance, the black key associated with D, also known as D flat, the white key D, and E flat or the black key associated with E.

Let’s forget about the keyboard and the notations and all of that stuff for a moment. An arrangement of four notes that sound “happy”, “uplifting” or “positive” is often designated as “Major” intervals or chords. At the same time, an arrangement of three notes that sound “sad”, “negative”, “gloomy” are known as “Minor” chords.

The car horn third lies between the happy and sad spectrum and hence have a unique emotion and auditory arrangement as opposed to the extreme ends which are often used in music.

The car horn third is in fact about halfway between a major and a minor third. An interesting facet of this “in-between” third of the horn is that it has elements of both the happy major and the sad minor. When viewed in this way, the car horn third is a close relative of the “Jimi Hendrix” chord, which is also an amalgamation of both major third and minor third notes.

So, in essence, a car horn is almost as musical as Jimi Hendrix’s signature chord that you can hear in many of his famous songs, such as Purple Haze!

Moreover, owing to the Major third foundations of the car horn, it is in the same family as other urbanscape sounds, such as the dial tone of the landline telephone and the traditional doorbell.

The Acoustics and Functional Facets of the Car Horn

Even though it may not be as complex as the cliché claim of the intricacy of rocket science, sound acoustics and sound design are extremely precision-driven subject areas. There are institutes, countless lectures, large reservoirs of resources, and entire professional career paths built upon the design of sound.

In other words, it might seem that anyone, including you, my friend, could have come up with the car horn sound, right? I mean, what’s the big deal, it’s just a loud and annoying tone isn’t it? Why does it take a scientist to come up with something like that? Right?

Wrong.

You see, there is a very specific reason behind why the car horn has been tuned to the sound that we commonly hear today. It took numerous years and countless experiments to arrive at this particular sound.

According to a study conducted by Guillaume Lemaitre and his team under the title of “The Sound Quality of Car Horns: Designing New Representative Sounds”, it was observed that the sound of the car horn is dependent upon certain core functional paradigms.

Photo by ThisIsEngineering from Pexels
Photo by ThisIsEngineering from Pexels

There are about three to four factors which define what a car horn should sound like when it comes to manufacturing these noisy chatterboxes, depending on which sound designer or acoustic engineer you talk to. These include that the fact that the sound of a car horn should:

  • Be recognizable
  • Have an intrinsic and perceptually accepted communicative meaning
  • Allow the listener to know what it represents
  • Allow the listener to know what to do when he/she hears it

Numerous studies have been done to find the right car horn sound so that it appeals to some of our more primal instincts of fear and shock. The sound has been tuned ever so finely over vast periods until individuals react with just the right amount of alarm rather than either not reacting at all or suffering a massive panic attack every time they hear the sound.

A study conducted in 1999 used a driving simulator to see the urgency of the time taken by a driver to apply the brake when exposed to different types of sounds or acoustic signals. An extremely interesting finding in this study was that drivers instinctively reacted with different levels of urgency to different sounds.

The study found that individuals reacted faster to “iconic” sounds rather than “symbolic” sounds. What’s the difference, you might ask?

A symbolic sound is a random acoustic arrangement having no deeper meaning, socio-cultural context or physical/psychological connotation to it except a basic framework of notes, pitches and frequencies. An iconic sound on the other hand has a rich foundation of contextual meaning beneath it.

The best way to understand the difference between these two sounds is to compare a random blast of high-pitch frequency used to determine danger as opposed to the use of breaking the glass to denote danger. In most cases, the latter works better than the former, because a deeper contextual meaning, especially derived from our own psychological, physical, cultural and collective memory, tends to help us better react to a sound.

Acoustic Diversity of the Honk

Even though this might come as a surprise to many, car horn sounds are different for different countries as well as for different cars. Long gone are the days when honking was just a simple add-on, manufacturers are paying a lot of attention to the sound of the horn that they place into their models.

This new interest in car horn sound customization has resulted in new professions opening up for people like Victor Rangel, who is a resident engineer at Ford Motor Company. Rangel says that his job is similar to that of the orchestra conductor, in that he has to find the right place to secure a horn in a car model, specifically based on where it is being shipped to, what its price bracket is, and what type of a buyer base it appeals to most.

Photo by Andrey Grushnikov from Pexels
Photo by Andrey Grushnikov from Pexels

Not only do people like Rangel have to consider the differences in nation-level noise regulations for horns, but they also have to consider the type of sound that the people in a specific country are more used to on a cultural level.

In countries like China and India, where horns are used excessively, a sharper and more metallic sound is often used. In Western markets, the sharp “honk” of Indian cars is replaced by a mellower “meep”, that sound more like a trumpet.

However, the most important aspect in this entire plethora of information regarding the sound of the car horn is that we do not know much about why our vehicles shout, sing or screech they way they do. Due to our lack of awareness and insight into our noise-pieces, we tend to use them in ways and under circumstances that they were never built to be used in.

For instance, in cities like Mumbai and New York, horns are not merely a warning signal but a form of communication, a noisy soliloquy, a sonic discourse on the situation that lies in front of the driver, expressing everything from disdain, frustration, fears, anxiety, mischievous intentions, and many and many other more obscure forms of communicative intents.

Owing to this, the intended use of the horn and its vast technical foundations lose ground as soon as they reach the battlefields of the roads. Maybe, it is high time that we become more aware of when and why we choose to honk, at least for the sake of the amount of time and effort spent in engineering this instrument of the common man’s stage.

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