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A Soundtrack of Income Inequality Along the New York City Subway

As the 2 train runs through neighborhoods of varying income, this musical data viz changes its tune and tempo.

A mix of instruments and tempos evokes the journey of the 2 train as it passes through rich and poor neighborhoods. (Flickr/drpavloff)

Hey, remember when LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy tried to make music out of the NYC subway? That's sort of what artist-slash-programmer Brian Foo has done as a part of a new musical data-viz project. Foo translated the full 1.5-hour journey of New York City's 2 train into a 4.5-minute song that rises and falls depending on the income of the neighborhood the subway passes through.

"Stylistically, I want the song to exhibit the energy and orderly chaos of the NYC subway system itself," Foo writes.

And it kind of does, take a listen:

Foo was inspired by the Inequality and New York Subway project by the New Yorker  magazine (which also inspired similar data visualizations for other cities). But instead of making a graph about it, he made music. He grabbed musical ingredients from compositions that capture both New York's dynamism and the train itself, then mixed them with a variety of instruments from different music samples:

Foo split his tune into 48 segments—one for each of the legs between stops on the 2 train. The loudest part of the song happens around 1:37, in the segment that mirrors the stretch between Park Place and Chambers Street in the high-income Financial District. The softest/poorest part (3:53) is in the Bronx—between East 180 St. and Bronx Park East. In real life, that section has a median income that's roughly 7 percent of the richest segment of the stretch in the Financial District.

Foo intends to release this and other data-driven music projects in an album. Meanwhile, if any programming/music nerds/enthusiasts out there want to build a similar song with the train they take to work, here's how.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.