The Accidental Music of Imperfect Escalators

There’s a secret jazz seeping from Washington’s aging Metro escalators – those anemic metal walkways that fill our transit system… they honk and bleat and squawk… why are you still wearing those earbuds?” — Chris Richards, Move along with the soundtrack of Metro’s screechy, wailing escalators, The Washington Post, 01/14/11

Ever since the industrial revolution, when it became possible for products to be designed just once and then mass-produced, it has been the slight imperfections and wear introduced by human use that have transformed a quality mass-produced product into a thing we love. Your worn blue jeans, your grandmother’s iron skillet, the initial design determined their quality, but it’s their imperfections that make them comfortable, that make them lovable, that make them yours.

And if you think that a “slightly broken” escalator can’t be lovable, then our own Sam Greenspan would like to introduce you to Chris Richards. Chris Richards is a music critic for the Washington Post, and after years of ignoring the wailing and screeching of the much maligned, often broken escalators in the DC Metro, he began to hear them in a new way. He began to hear them as music.


This story was adapted from one that Sam Greenspan produced for his podcast, Whisper Cities, which tells stories of overlooked places and the people who find them.

The designer of the first DC Metro stations was Harry Weese. Weese’s “Jailhouse Skyscraper” in downtown Chicago was profiled in 99% Invisible #26 by Dan Weissmann. The Metro ceilings may be brutalism at its best.


If you don’t get the “Culs-de-sac” joke, listen to this episode.

Radio producers Alex Van Oss and Charles Maynes also created their own Ballad of the DC Metro for Podstantsiya, a Moscow-based podcast and audio collective. (The site is in Russian, but the radio feature is in English.)


THANKS, RADIOLAB!  For a brief shining moment, 99% Invisible was the #2 podcast on iTunes, and #1 in both the Arts and Design categories. Thank you so much for checking out the show. If you’re new here, never fear, you did not miss a thing! All the past episodes are available for download and are great (you know, as a body of work, some are better than others).

If you appreciated Radiolab telling you about the show, do us a huge favor and tell everyone you know to listen and subscribe. If the response that Jad and Robert have gotten is any indication, they will thank you for it!


Let’s hear it! What’s your favorite sound that you know other people hear as just noise? Please leave a comment below.

  1. Irena

    My favorite sound that is noise is the sound that trains would make at night in Cincinnati.

    I lived too far away from the tracks to hear the ‘chug chug chug’ or the actual sounds of the wheels turning, or even the sound of the horns, but for some reason on certain nights the sound of the brakes would travel all the way across the city from the train yards. They made a chorus of long, atmospheric notes, softened by the air, a little melancholy but very restful. The noise was somehow both high pitched and low pitched at the same time. I think this was most common on nights when it had rained during the day, and I would prop my window open to listen and smell the wet earth as I went to sleep.

  2. Katie

    i have a few favorite sounds…some probably more unique than others.

    i love the sound of a basketball going through a net and the sound of sneakers on a shiny basketball court
    i love the sound of cleats on cement
    i love the sound of heavy rain and thunder
    i could listen to a baby babble for hours

  3. Anne Debevoise

    I grew up in Montgomery Co. and went to UMD. Those escalators are the sound of home. When I was taking Japanese Art History 1500-Present the professor had us going to Freer and Sackler Galleries a lot. If any of you have been, you know about the Peacock Room. That room has a really interesting history of design! Look it up!

  4. Lindsey N.

    I grew up next to one of the main highways of my state. There was the backyard, a thin chain-linked fence, some trees and shrubs then BAM highway. That being said I love the sound of traffic. I would spend long stretches of time on the swing-set staring at the cars that would drive by in the afternoons. I would walk to my bus-stop to the sound of rush hour in the morning on my way to school. It was never truly quiet and because of that, I never really felt lonely. I took this comfort for granted and I didn’t realize it until I moved to a new, developing neighborhood out in the country.

  5. Nicole

    One of the most beautiful sounds on this planet is a Harley. So many people hate them (I really dislike the whine of “crotch rockets” so I get it) but I truly love the growl of a well-tuned motorcycle, the “potato-potato-potato” sound.

  6. 2 Stories:

    First – I worked in Vail Colorado for a Winter, 94/95. I lived in the Gondola Building which has now been rebuilt with a new Elevator so you can’t hear it anymore, but, the old one had a Unique sound when the Motor started up, like a ww-AH! During the day, it was always in use so it wasn’t that noticeable, but at night, it meant one of your neighbors was coming home or a friend to visit. I never thought much about it since then until a few years ago when Imagine Dragons came out with their song “I Bet My Life”. I kept hearing that sound throughout the song, that ww-AH! ( you can hear it three times at 1:27, 1:30, and 1:32 here: For a few weeks I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember where that sound was from, or even what it was in the song. I eventually recognized that it was the Chorus of Girls singing the word “I” as in “I Bet my Life” but, they kind or screech it. Then, I remembered why I recognize that sound, it was the exact same sound the Elevator made in Vail all those years ago. And, sad to say, yes, the Elevator is gone, or I am sure people could have added it to one of the Tour Bus Stops.

    Second – I grew up in Hawaii, in a house where the Highway was on one side and the Ocean was on the other. The cars driving by in the 70s and 80s were a lot more fun to listen to because they still had fairly loud engines, the more modern ones are far more quite. And, yes, the waves on the beach were nice, but, there was a Sandstone Peninsula a few houses down and the ocean cut a half tunnel like channel into the side of it. You could hear the waves coming in, buzzing down the underside of the “Point” and ending in a “THEW-fsh” as it gushed through the Rock that sat at the end of the beach. People who would visit said they had a hard time sleeping with all the noise going on in our house, but, when I left home to live in Yosemite, I had a SUPER hard time sleeping with all that quiet!

  7. Lilly

    I laughed out loud at work when listening to this because Seattle’s escalators are always closed off with “escalator out of service “ signs. At a station I frequent one escalator has been out of service for the past two months!

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