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Artist Turns New York Subway Map Into a Musical Instrument

Using actual subway location data from New York City Transit, an artist animated the subway map, and lets you play it like a viola.


Forget riding the subway, try playing it. Conductor, an interactive digital art project inspired by the New York City subway system, sonically represents actual transit data. Plus, you can play the subway map like a viola.

Artist Alexander Chen recreated, and then animated, the famous Massimo Vignelli NYC subway map. New York City Transit makes data available—like when each train leaves the yard—as part of an effort to encourage the creation of more third-party transit apps for mobile phones and the internet. Chen took that data through the agency's API and used it for art.

Each time a train leaves the station in the MTA dataset, so does a dot on Chen’s interactive map trailing a line with the same color as the train line. Watch the bottom left corner for the key. The music comes in when two train lines cross. Each intersection causes a twang, like a plucked string on viola—Chen’s chosen instrument. Listen to how the notes get deeper the longer the lines stretch. Pretty impressive.

The data isn’t 100 percent accurate though. The system has changed since 1972 when Vignelli made his iconic map, so Chen has the K train and the old Third Ave El train (neither exist anymore) run only on a limited schedule.

You can also use your mouse to pluck strings/subway lines on the site, though not on the video above, sadly. For all you techies who want to know who he built the site, Chen explains it all here.

New Yorkers, see if you can tell what portion of the map is visible in the animation.

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