My wife and I recently moved to a house in the Dunbar/Spring neighborhood of Tucson, Ariz. Because we had never visited the house in the middle of the night, we didn't realize quite how loud the freight-train horns were. We have adjusted, in part with the help of earplugs. (To spoil another potential list, let me recommend Hearos Xtreme Protection, which at 33NRR not only offer the highest protection recognized by OSHA, but also come in a very handsome blue color.)

As a child, I loved the sound of trains. They seemed spectral and romantic. I also liked the reminder that work was still being done at a time when most people were sleeping. It connoted progress—like night was just preparation for day, and day for night. But like many things that were romantic to me as a child, the reality of the train horn has set in like a rude and bitter light.

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My call to the media office of Union Pacific was met with friendly curiosity. I can't say I've ever gotten that question before, they basically said—the question being, "How can I find out exactly what train horns are blowing in my neighborhood?" (I regret not asking what kinds of questions they do get.) In any case, I have ventured to make of my circumstances what I can. With some relevant history and musicological dissection, here is a speculative list of my favorites.

6. Nathan Airchime K3LA

Sounding a clear and heroic B-major chord, the K3LA has "long been the leader in commercial railway horns," according to Hornblasters.com, which lists one of its features as "a real train horn!" It is a fine horn, though I have never loved B-major as a chord or key—too many sharps, and a non-natural starting point for any instrument, string, wind, or otherwise. Also, the horn does seem to suffer from age more than most in that an out-of-tune B-major chord is like a bald eagle with a hurt wing tucked into a tiny little sling.

5. Nathan Airchime K5LLA

Following the penchant for American excess, this newer horn blows not three but five notes that form no chord in any musical tradition. To paraphrase Aziz Ansari on the subject of Cold Stone Creamery, it is as though they have taken a horn and fucked a series of unrelated notes directly into it. Trainiax.net also notes that "manufacturing inconsistencies" have given rise to a whole new set of terrifying snowflakes that have made their individuality your problem. At least it has a lower decibel level than the earlier K5LA, but only because the damn government forced them to.

4. Nathan Airchime K5HL (or K5L)

I am inclined to hate this horn based purely on its genealogical proximity to the K5LLA, though the chord—a D-sharp minor with an added sixth—is much nicer. Think of it like a spooky twin.

3. Nathan Airchime K3L

Not the same as the K3LA, whose "A" designates "American" tuning. Though it seems apocryphal and at the very least strange, I have read that Canadian regulations require trains to blow a D-sharp-minor chord, which according to the 18th-century German poet Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart embodies "feelings of the anxiety of the soul's deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depression, of the most gloomy condition of the soul." (Naturally the American tuning avoids these feelings.) I admire this horn. I should also say that I am not sure I have heard it, because it is Canadian, though it does sound familiar. I am especially attached to the idea that I would hear it in Arizona, as though it were an animal that has made some weird error in migration and now spends its nights making lonely calls homeward.

2. Nathan Airchime P1234a5

This is probably coming from Amtrak's Sunset Limited, which runs through Tucson on its way to Los Angeles nightly at around 8:30, meaning that only at the end of very tiring days does it actually wake us up. It has a harsh, brassy sound, and blows the kind of diminished chord I associate with hot jazz, or horror movies. I would dream of this horn if I could make it to sleep for long enough.

1. [Unknown]

This horn blows a sweet and friendly major-sixth chord of some kind. I suspect it is a Nathan Airchime P01235 that has been degraded by time. What a human trait it is to turn weakness into virtue.

As for my wife, she dislikes them all equally.


Mike Powell (@sternlunch) lives in Tucson, Ariz. He has written for Pitchfork, Grantland, Rolling Stone, the LA Review of Books, and other places.

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