Music of the Rails • Freight Train Whistles in the Night

Here is a film of an American steam train winding its way through the mountains. The driver, Steve, is giving the whistle his best blast. There’s a corny voice-over at the beginning which is best to ignore…

Quite apart from the lovely whistle sound, there is a plangent echo as the sound disappears into the vast landscape.

I’ve discovered that British and French whistles have a very different sound , and modern air horns have power, but less soul.

I’ve posted before about the music of the rails and about how all of American popular music derives from the sound of the railway track. I realised watching and listening to these films, that in addition to the track and mechanical sounds of the train, there are important additional sounds devolving from the warning bells of railway crossings and the echo-effects of the whistle. US locos have a bell on the front too.

All these sounds change in relation to each other as the train moves…producing strange doppler effects which are specific to being at tack-side, or on the train.

The soundscape of train travel is so strange and beautiful.

PS I was reminded of Moondog’s Tugboat Toccata and the lovely tug-boat whistle at the start of that piece. I discovered his equally lovely Choo Choo Lullaby

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