Artist's Journal

The Night Train

Last weekend I took an unexpected train journey from Preston to Grange-Over-Sands.  It was the same train on which FLEETING will, eventually, be installed. The clocks had not yet changed and the evening light was already fading when I boarded, so any hopes I had of taking some photographs of Morecambe Bay were quickly dashed, though that didn’t stop me trying (see exhibit A above – Last Light Over A Rainy Grange-Over-Sands) However, not one to overlook an opportunity, I decided to record the sounds within the train carriage itself.

One of the biggest concerns I have about developing FLEETING is how the piece will compete with the ambient sounds of a busy train carriage in order to be heard. As a sound piece, it needs to be heard, but at the same time, it should not be so loud that it becomes invasive and detracts from passenger enjoyment of the piece, and of course, their journey experience.

In Germany, they have been trialling bone conduction technology on trains. Bone conduction technology allows train windows to silently talk to individual commuters allowing them to hear an advert in a noisy train carriage. Yes, really!

Sadly, this sort of science is beyond my means, but there are things I can do within the sound design process to improve passenger access to FLEETING. 

It starts with identifying the sound signature of the train carriage by making a sample sound recording of the space.  So this is what I did. I recorded the sound of my train journey with my iphone’s voice recorder function – the only piece of equipment I had to hand. I waited until we reached Lancaster before pressing record to ensure I captured the typical sounds of the carriage going along the exact journey FLEETNG will be played. As I captured each sound, I noted which were the sounds that carried - newspapers rustling, children talking – and which were the sounds that were lost – the noise of the moving train, the intelligibility of train announcements over the loud speaker. Listen:



It is normal for people to retreat into their own headspace when travelling on public transport. We zone out ambient noise by concentrating on our own individual activities such as reading, working on mobile devices, accessing music or film via mobile devices, eating and drinking, daydreaming or even sleeping.

Click on the link above to listen to the recording I made, and you will soon realise how amazing it is that we are able to do any of this when we are bombarded with all sorts of deliberate and accidental invasive sounds, some of which are useful acoustic cues and some of which are not. For example:

Non-speech Sound Signals

The jingle used to denote a train announcement is a useful acoustic cue for passengers as it gives an attention focus to train announcements.

Mechanical sources such as ticket punching machines and internal carriage doors opening and closing produce causal sounds which passengers are used to, and, to a large extent, are able to tune out.

Speech Sound Signals

The spoken announcements over the train’s tannoy system convey information messages which are un-ambiguous semantic sound signals, but, depending on the speaker, are often unintelligible.  Clear, measured, unaccented and enunciated voices work best.

Human Activities

Sounds such as conversations and phone calls, eating and drinking noises, moving luggage noises, reading newspapers, listening to music on personal headphones, sounds associated with walking through the carriage all produce different levels of sound that can be 

Architectural Configurations

The space within the train carriage interacts with all produced sound, absorbing and reverberating noises depending on the materials on board, the number of people in board etc.

So, how can I use this information to produce a more accessible sound piece that will encourage passengers to listen closely and will compete against excitable children and the irritable rustle of The West Morland Gazette? Here’s some initial thoughts:


By using ‘earcons’ - musical melodies - to convey a message, such as the beginning of new section within FLEETING, I may be able to ‘train’ (no pun intended) passengers to know what is coming, so that they begin to recognise new audio information is being played and get ready to actively listen.

Using ‘auditory icons’ that imitate natural physical phenomenon, such as the weather experienced by the fishermen, the sound of the water itself, the sound of boats or oars cutting through water, to act as an auditory metaphor should help to evoke the circumstance and conditions recounted by the fishing community’s spoken memories and encourage active listening. 


Many of the voices in the fishing community’s oral history are softly accented. Ensuring these accented voices come through is important to the authenticity of the piece, but it means that I’ll need to be more discerning in selecting which voices to use, keeping in mind clarity, enunciation, volume, pitch and tone.


Although I am unable to affect the interior of the train carriage, I can ensure that the speakers I install are placed strategically and surround passengers to facilitate a more immersive experience.

Next time you travel on a train or bus, spend a few minutes listening to the sounds around you. Which ones do you notice the most? Why do you think that is? What sort of sound would you prefer to listen to while travelling by public transport?


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