There is an unwritten code of conduct for those riding in a lift. First: say nothing, and if you have to speak, keep your voice hushed. Second: avoid eye contact with fellow travellers; stare ahead or look down at the floor. With such solemnity, being in a lift is a dour affair. Well, usually! There is one lift in London in which travellers are inspired to defy convention. Through its ingenious background music, London’s singing lift captivates its passengers leaving them amused, invigorated and happy to converse.

In the way it works, the lift also happens to challenge a conviction that I know I share with many others; to us, background music is anathema. For years, I have found music broadcast over loudspeakers in airport lounges and waiting rooms intensely annoying. Even worse is the over-loud music in restaurants that makes conversation difficult if not impossible. My overriding response to such noise has been either to go elsewhere or to ask that the music be turned down, or better still off. In the singing lift, I wanted to hear more!

To the lift itself. This glass-fronted, almost invisible lift carries visitors up and down the six floors of the London Festival Hall and was produced by the Turner Prize winning artist and musician, Martin Creed. He created it for a choral festival at the Southbank Centre in 2010; his brief was to make a lift that sang.  

Although it has been beguiling adults and children for years, I only discovered it this spring. My wife, Rohan, and I were walking on London’s South Bank with our son, Joshua and our one-year-old grandson, River. We entered the Hall by a side door and were led by Joshua across a wide landing to the lift – he had something in mind! There we waited. Joshua said nothing apart from telling us that the lift would be taking us to a children’s play area on the fourth floor; it was one of River’s favourite places.  

Soon the lift arrived and inside there was silence.  We pressed the button for the fourth floor, and as we set off, a deep and just discernible voice began to sing. I strained my ears and all became clearer. It was indeed singing – more precisely ‘lah-ing’ – and as the lift went higher, so did the tune and, with each new note new voices joined in. In musical terms we were being treated to a major chord progression in chromatic steps. At our destination the ‘lah-ing’ was replaced, in the same pitch, by the words ‘level four’; the doors then opened and we left excited. It had been an extraordinary journey – ingeniously, the music heard in our heads had exactly reflected the physical ascent of our bodies and the feeling was weird and wonderful. Joshua, who had taken the lift many times and knew what to expect, smiled.

When we went back down the sequence was reversed and gave just as much pleasure. A pleasure shared by the other passengers too.

I have since returned to explore the lift in detail. At its lowest point a bass voice sings on bottom E. Six floors higher, and after covering three-and-a-half octaves, a soprano finishes on top A sharp. Along the way other voices join in and at the mid-point there are eight parts, each contributing a different note of the chord.

To provide this accompaniment the integration between the singing and the lift’s control system had to be very sophisticated and would have required multiple recordings. If passengers ask the lift to go from the first floor to the sixth without stopping the journey time will be short and, to keep up, all the octaves have to be covered quickly. Alternatively, if the lift stops at every floor the journey takes longer and each octave is sung more slowly and is broken by five different floor announcements. Moreover, all combinations of speed and announcements have to be catered for at the press of the lift button. Martin Creed certainly knew his stuff.

There is an unexpected drawback to the lift’s success. So many people come specially to witness the pleasures of the singing for themselves, that sometimes there are long queues and going up to the next floor can take time. But surely, for the good of humankind as a whole, isn’t a slight delay a price worth paying? And while they are waiting, those in the queue might consider two other lessons the lift offers; first, that not all background music is bad and second, that travelling in a lift does not have to be a miserable experience.

The illustration shows a detail of a choir of eight unaccompanied singers in a panel of an altarpiece painted by Jan van Eyck between 1425 – 1432.

For help with writing this blog, I would like to thank Joshua, Rohan, Vivien and Harold, a very musical friend.

10 thoughts on “London’s Singing Lift

  1. Bonjour Joe, ton ascenseur m’a fait rêver, c’est un lieu magique ! un jour Luka Luka a supplié son père “Papa, promets-moi que tu m’amèneras un jour sur un arc en ciel !”. Joe, promets-moi que Rohan et toi tu m’amènerez un jour dans cet ascenseur ! Annie

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  2. Dear Joe, what a wonderful and creative idea! I would love to try that lift! However, in the U.S. there is a different custom regarding lift (elevator) etiquette. As I remember-when you enter the lift and there is only one other occupant, especially a male, he will feel bound to say something-good morning or something about the weather, but being silent would be almost rude. I still remember stepping into a lift in Baltimore and hearing the occupant say “How about those Os!”. I was a bit bemused but later realised the Baltimore Orioles had just won a game!
    Love
    Robin

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  3. Dear Robin, many thanks for your letter. I can see the greeting you had in the USA happening in the UK too, but I very much doubt if it would happen to me if the one person in the lift was a woman. There are probably gender and a lift codes to be considered here. Love, Joe

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  4. Dear Prof.,
    An experiment has recently taken place in Switzerland, where certain types of music played to cheeses have been found to improve their flavour and speed up the time it takes for them to mature.
    If you have some spare time, or would like to give your lovely wife a well-earned break, perhaps you would like to join me in the shop and we could hum to the cheese together?
    All the best,
    John the Cheese

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    1. Dear John, I am game, but we should assess the effect of humming in a carefully controlled study in which you pay for the ingredient. Take two ample slices of Lincolnshire Poacher and use each to make a cheese and ham baguette. Put one sandwich in a sealed container and then we two sing to the other. After two minutes or so we taste them both to assess if there is any difference. Is this acceptable? Yours, Joe

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  5. Dear Joe
    I travelled in that lift with Helen a few years ago when we met at the RFH. It was a surprise and a pleasure. Thank you for explaining the complexity of it. We could do with more lifts like that I think.
    Andrea

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    1. Dear Andrea, I am delighted that you too found the Singing lift a pleasure. To me, knowing the details was essential and, as might be expected, they enhanced the experience enormously. Love, Joe.

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  6. I can’t wait to discover the lift, we’ve been to the RFH so many times and never heard about it! I agree more lifts like this would be lovely… come on Joe, do what you do and start a petition to make a much needed change!

    ‘Lifts to lift us in more ways than one!’

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  7. Dear Carolyn, It is odd how this enchanting lift is so little known. As to what we do next – we need a campaign to think through background music generally. So many changes would help. In most situations it should be banned! Where it is permitted it should 1) add to the environment 2) come with mechanisms to allow it to be turned off if requested …. and so on. Love, Joe.

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