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CanadaSound: the deafening noon-hour blast of Vancouver's Heritage Horns

Grant Lawrence

What are Canada's most iconic sounds? What is your favourite Canadian sound? Why? Those are the questions we're asking you this year, as part of our Canada 150 project called CanadaSound. We're hoping to create the ulimate Canadian soundmap. Throughout the year, I'll share some of the country's most recognizable (and loud) sounds.

Today: the Heritage Horns of Vancouver.

Fifty years ago, a Canadian inventor named Robert Swanson was commisioned to create a set of horns for Expo 67, Canada's centennial celebrations. Swanson loved loud noises. He worked for the railroad for years, coming up with various train whistles and horns still used and instantly recognizable today. He's also responsible for the iconic blast of the B.C. Ferries horn heard up and down the West Coast.

The Heritage Horns are what came of that commission, and today they blast out the first four notes of "O Canada" every day at noon — and have done so fairly consistently for half a century, save a few years in the early 1990s when they were moved from their original home on the roof of the B.C. Hydro building to their current home on the roof of Canada Place and the Pan Pacific Hotel.

There are 10 horns in total, five pointing due north towards the mountains, and five pointing east, down Burrard Inlet. They're powered by two large tanks of compressed air. The horns are about as loud as your average rock concert. You can hear them throughout the Lower Mainland.

During the 2010 Winter Olympics, the horns sounded every time a Canadian athlete won a medal. By the end of the games, the horns were blown 26 times over two weeks.

The roof is closed to the public, but we were granted special access to get up close and personal — and when those horns blew, we could feel it in our rib cages. Watch the video above to see for yourself.

What is the iconic sound of your town? What is your favourite Canadian sound? Submit yours now!

CBC Music is pleased to support CanadaSound, imagined by cleansheet communications, with partners the Junos, SOCAN, Musicounts, Canadian Heritage, IcI musique, and Adisque.