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How communicative is your car horn?

By Michelle Kenyon

00:00 / 00:55

Narrated by Michelle Kenyon, Horn calls by @brassfromthepast5149

When we think of a car horn, we likely view it as an unsophisticated means of communication. It simply emits a single, blaring pitch. A car horn does not have the same communicative powers as speech. When it is “played,” there is no fluctuation in pitch, no syntax, and no metrical organization. It would seem somewhat silly to classify a car horn as “musical.” However, the history of the car horn is rooted in musical conversation.
In the late 19th century, signal men, known as “guards,” on four-in-hand carriages sounded hand-held horns, called coach horns, to communicate vital information on the road. Specific melodies were performed on the coach horn to signal critical information to the coach driver as well as other drivers on the road. In the sound clip, you will hear some of the signals played by the coach horn. Notice that these signals contain a variety of pitches and rhythms. Moreover, the coach horn sounds like a trumpet, unlike a modern car horn.

Considering how communicative and expressive the coach horn was, one wonders why we transitioned to the single-note car horn. Perhaps the first reason is—convenience. The coach horn signals were a kind of performance, and they needed to be played by someone in the vehicle. To control both the automobile and a horn simultaneously would be quite difficult for an automobile driver. In addition, it would have been difficult to create a mechanical instrument that mimicked the various coach horn melodies.  Installing single-tone horns in vehicles was simply easier.

Perhaps car horns became less flashy because of the changing social climate around the turn of the century.  During the early days of the automobile, conformity reigned while individuality was often frowned upon. Events like the Red Scare caused people to conform to avoid political persecution. In this context, the individualism of the coach horn might have drawn too much attention. By contrast, single-tone horns were uniform in sound, allowing drivers to become more inconspicuous on the road. When we stopped using horn calls with prescribed meanings, did we lose the ability to communicate specific information on the road?

Perhaps, even with the limited capabilities of a single-tone car horn, people have still managed to create a new language of the road. Consider your own experiences hearing cars honk. A light, quick tap to the horn often is a gentle nudge to tell another driver that a light has turned green, whereas a long, drawn-out horn often conveys frustration. In this way, drivers often use rhythm and duration to convey different meanings. Even though drivers’ horns are limited to a single note, is it possible that people are still able to communicate just as well as they did with coach horns?

So, what are the vehicle horns of the future? Surprisingly, melodic signals, like those of the coach horn, might once again be on the rise! Tesla car company now offers a customizable horn option, in which owners can upload their own audio file as a car horn. This suggests that the car horn is being used for creative expression, as users display their personality with humorous, musical, or tranquil signals. This brings with it, however, the possibility of once again creating a specific series of horn calls to mean specific things, just as it was with the coach horn.

Do you think that we should reintroduce a musical car horn for the purpose of communication?
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Cady, Kim. “Coaching Four-in-Hand: Sport Driving for the Gilded Age Gentleman.”, 31 July 2019, Accessed 14 Apr. 2023.

Mahmood, Jathla A. “What Do Car Horns Say? an Overview of the Non-Verbal Communication of Horn Honking.” Open Journal of Social Sciences, 9/8 (2021): 375–388.

Brass from the Past. "Two English Coach Horns. Used on English Postal Coaches and on Coaches of the Aristocracy." 10 Oct. 2022, Accessed 17 Apr. 2023.

Vilkner, Nicole. “Articulating Urban Culture with Coach Horns in the Long Nineteenth Century.” Journal of Musicology, 39/2 (2022): 225–254.

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