The Sweet Sound of Ice Cream Trucks

Food, Eat the Street

While we're biologically wired to use smells to detect food, sounds can work as well. After all, there's nothing like the beckoning call of ice cream truck music. Long before today's food truck craze, ice cream vans reigned supreme among mobile food vendors, distinct for their use of alluring jingles.

The Washington Post reports that early ice cream trucks issued their calls to the curb with actual chiming bells.  According to Daniel Neely, ethnomusicologist and author of "Soft Serve: Charting the Aural Promise of Ice Cream Truck Music," melodies appeared in 1929 when a vendor in California strapped an amplified music box to the roof of his truck, playing a Polish folk song called “The Farm Pump.” Most of today's tunes are likewise copyright-free folk songs, though a few companies like Mister Softee have composed their own melodies to distinguish their treats. 

Mister-softee-sheet-musicSheet music for the Mister Softee jingle
Image credit: Mister Softee

Even when songs are only vaguely familiar, ice cream truck music is among the rare sounds that are instantly recognizable. The nostalgia-incuding tunes have been used to calm teen riots and even mask drug rings. However, in Pasco, Washington, there's ongoing debate about whether or not noise ordinances apply to the vehicles. At present, the city's law states that noise that can be heard from 75 feet away is subject to a $250 fine.

After much mockery, local police have backed down for now, but such noise complaints are not unprecedented. The current agreement in New York City is that trucks may play their music, so long as they keep on moving. Parked music-making vans seem to remain an issue though, as government maintains a form specifically for reporting ice cream truck noise complaints.

As the weather warms, the roving trucks are hitting neighborhoods worldwide, whether you like it or not. One of the most popular songs among the lumbering vehicles today is a loop of “The Entertainer.” Sample the song, and--if you're up for it--order everything you'd need to start your own mobile ice cream venture at

Cover image credit: Paul Lowry