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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Metro melody dou-dou-dou doomed

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hacheur de courant MR-73 metro car

What are your favourite sounds of Montreal? Mine is the lovely chord that the metro trains make when they start up – you know, the one featured in the campy 70’s metro ad “Il fait beau dans le metro.”

According to a friend with perfect-pitch, the notes are F-Bflat-F, a Bb5 chord. He suggests Beethoven’s 4th or Elton John’s Can you Feel the Love Tonight as musical matches for your metro-riding enjoyment.

The STM explains in more technical detail than I can grasp that the dou-dou-dou sound is a by-product of the 1970s vintage current-chopper. The three audible frequencies are caused by the incremental increase of current to the motor. Since the whole system was custom-engineered for MR-73 metro cars, Montreal’s subway system is unique in running to the tune of Bb5.

But the dou-dou-dou is, in the long run, doomed, as the 35-year-old trains are to be replaced with new, more hushed technology. In September, the STM negotiated was in the process of negotiating an order for 765 new metro cars, which will would be manufactured in Quebec by Bombardier and Alstom over the next 10-12 years.

The 340 MR-63s cars, which have been rolling since 1966 on the green line will be replaced first. If all goes according to plans (but does it ever?) the melodious ’73s will be replaced by 2021. That means we wtill have lots of time to appreciate this little idiosyncrasy before “Il fait beau dans le métro” has to go acapella.

Image: The current-chopper is situated underneath the metro’s motor cars. Each train has 9 cars, two of which are motor cars. Image from Info STM: Le hacheur de courant

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  1. Wow, learning that it’s gonna go away made me quite sad. I hope they emulate it someway else. :(

  2. I’m glad I’m not the only one to notice and enjoy these things. Every city’s transit system seems to make different noises. I thought it’d make for some good samples to throw into a metro or streetcar party.

  3. I seem to only hear the cord on the orange and blue lines. I’ve never heard it on the green line trains, but those ones seem to be a different model, with the open mesh windows on one end of each car.

    Every metro system has a different signature sound, usually warning the doors are about to close. Montreal’s metro lacks that, which is particularly annoying as it’s doors are unforgiving if you get stuck between them!

  4. The metro car contract has not been awarded to Bombardier. Originally they were the only company that qualified, but that deal was voided when Alstom took the STM to court. Bombardier and Alstom are now jointly bidding, but the bid was 40% higher then the STM expected. They are currently in negotiations and the contract is 14 months late.

  5. Matthew – the musical cars are only on the orange, blue and yellow lines. The cars on the green line are older and don’t use the same technology. Well spotted.

    GDS – Thanks for the clarification about Alstom.

    Todd – my feeling is that a dou-dou-dou emulator would be kind of… trying too hard. What’s so nice about the sound is that its an inseparable part of the metro system rather than some marketing ploy or aesthetic detail that had to pass through a million committees.
    Can you imagine the engineers pitching this to the STM in the early ’70s? “Well, the new technology is noisy, but kind of NICE-noisy…”

  6. I actually wrote a note about this on Facebook for my friends a few days ago! Here are my thoughts:

    Proof that You Can Find Beauty Anywhere… if you look. La preuve qu’on peut trouver la beauté partout… si on la cherche.

    Through the Canadian Centre for Architecture website, I found this article:

    A visiting American architecture and design expert discovered that the mechanical sounds the metro metro cars make on departure strongly resembles the beginning of the “Fanfare of the Common Man”… and indeed it does! It’s amazing! Wouldn’t it be beautiful if the STM adopted this piece as its official sound signature? (in the same way that “Mind the Gap”, “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors Please” and the SNCF chimes remind you instantly of the Tube, the NY Subway and a lovely trip to the South of France respectively). And obviously, the title of the piece is perfectly appropriate…

    Here is the noise the train makes (for those of you who don’t live in Montreal):

    And here is the fanfare:

  7. Wow! How did you find that? I downloaded “timbre2” and 3 as well. Are there anymore STM sounds to download?

  8. I’m visiting Montreal and my first hearing of the Bb5 reminds me of the opening three notes of the Beatles “Lucy in the Sky …” sounds like the same keyboard! 

  9. the sound HAS been emulated on the new trains…the tradition continues !

  10. Even as a child, I always thought that the three sounds that the Metro made sounded really cool and I just thought it was a sound that the Metro played to sound cool. Since the technology works, why not continue to use it? After all, tech from the 70s can’t be that expensive (unless it’s no longer mass-produced). I haven’t lived in Montreal for decades but the sound of the Metro is one of those reminders that I’ve come home. For the sound to disappear would be a sad loss for something that is quintessentially Montreal. I know it sounds funny but that sound is something that I would forever miss.

  11. I’m a musician and it’s not flat.It’s a b5th.So F#.B.F#.So much for your friend’s perfect pitch.I’m always in tune and i played the Youtube track.It’s B5th. :)

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