The sound of a baby crying. We all know it. We remember it so fondly on aeroplanes, in shopping queues, peaceful moments in the park... That piercing, stress-inducing skewer of noise. But why can’t we just ignore it?
There's more evidence to back the strong belief that our brains, bless them, are hard-wired to respond strongly to sound, making us more attentive and priming our bodies to help whenever we hear someone in distress.
The fundamental frequency of a baby's cry typically lies between 200 to 500 Hz, really not that far off from an ambulance siren. It creates an instinctive reaction in us, just as a smell can be evocative, just as a bright light makes us squint, and just as a hot surface will cause a recoil in whatever unfortunate part of our bodies it's touched. Our ears are inputs for our brains; our brain is already programmed to do the rest.
Sound, very much like smell, creates an association. There is a story of a man who wanted to buy a new telephone. He had basic needs and didn’t require anything flash or out of the ordinary. His sole request was to own a phone with a “normal” ringtone, rather than the polyphonic stereo nonsense we hear too much of already.
“I’m afraid a normal ringtone is going to be very difficult to find, sir,” said the sales assistant.
If we consider that statement, it should be viewed as absurd. Why should we accept a substandard version of reality? We live in an astonishingly dynamic and fast-paced world, yet accepting that means that we're refusing to keep up and instead required to become abnormal. It’s not even a case of bad language; in this context the word “normal” is associated with an aged and old-fashioned sound. Normal is not good enough, normal is what everyone else does, normal is an insult in the tech world.
Life imitates Lyrebird?
The Lyrebird is a ground-dwelling bird that has a unique talent. Native to the Rainforests of Australia, this shy and often hidden bird is a master of audio deception. It loves to sing and will quite happily belt out its songs for most of the day, but the Lyrebird’s more interesting talent lies in its ability to mimic the sounds it hears. It can, and has been recorded mimicking even the most obscure sounds, regardless of whether they're digital, mechanical, or vocal. One particular sound that a proud specimen is known to have imitated is that of a camera shutter. Having been photographed so many times (for it is not only a bird that is easy on the ears but on the eyes, too) it has developed the ability to produce a sound that replicates exactly that of a camera shutter... it even has a retro feel about it.
Played to a group of pre-teens it was met with the following outcry: “OMG it’s an iPhone lock button”
A sigh of exasperation was audible, and I realised it was coming from me. But were these adolescents wrong? The answer was no.
In terms of linguistics, English philologist, phonetician and grammarian Henry Sweet once wrote: “In considering the use of grammar as a corrective of what are called 'ungrammatical' expressions, it must be borne in mind that the rules of grammar have no value except as statements of facts: whatever is in general use in a language is for that very reason grammatically correct.”
And in terms of sound logos, or sound trademarks, we must think the same.
That sound, that the Lyrebird made, is, in 2019, the sound of a phone being locked. The amount of times we hear it when locking our phones far outweighs the number of times we hear it while using 1980s cameras to take photos.
Spanish classical guitarist and composer Francisco Tárrega's piece “Gran Vals” is now no longer Francisco Tárrega's piece “Gran Vals”, it's the Nokia ringtone that we're all familiar with. The very sound of that click, that came from a camera and was replicated by that very bird has now become synonymous with locking one's phone. It must be recognised as a masterpiece of sound design. So subtle that we barely notice it anymore, so cool that we never question it, and so established that the poor camera now sounds like it, rather than the other way round.
Think the Netflix “Duh Dum”, the WhatsApp “ding”, the achingly annoying Samsung whistle, Intel Inside... These sounds stick in our minds as much as any logo could, they are instantly recognisable and the associations have become ingrained in our brains. That is what good sound design can do.
Most people on the planet would be able to recognise the Nike logo, but the word “Nike” would have to be translated many times for the same amount of people to do the same. Logos transcend language in that sense. And the very same could be said for audio logos, or audio trademarks.
The stark similarity in the benefits of what a visual logo and an audio one can bring simply must not be ignored. Really the only difference here is that if we close our eyes we can still hear that baby in the row behind. We can still hear that baby crying when we focus all of our visual attention on our book in the park.
And we are seeing the effect of this more and more...
Clearly, many of the same factors that make advertising in video so effective, must also apply to audio with one great difference - audio can be used to reach users when visual can’t. Many people open themselves to the audio world while driving, sitting on the train, exercising, walking to work, and much more. We know we are paying attention because we still turn it down when we are lost!
Since the advent of iTunes in 2001, Amazon Music, Spotify and many others have emerged. We can indeed be influenced by audio, and it's now a huge platform for advertisers.
But how new is this?
Between 1919 and 1922, radio stations began to evolve. It was becoming standard practice to broadcast continuously. Station owners began obtaining business licenses and seeking ways to make the medium self-sufficient, which included selling air time. This year marks the 100th anniversary of audio advertising!
A great, early example came in 1922 when AT&T began to sell something called toll broadcasting, in which businesses could underwrite or finance a broadcast in return for having their brand mentioned on air.
The difference today is the same difference that we have with any other medium; we have the technology and data to deliver this when and where it is necessary and wanted. Streaming audio is now cemented as part of the commercial media market, so much so that, according to IAB Audio Advertising State of the Nation Report, a massive 87% of users used ads within streaming services in 2018. If relevant, and if appropriate, audio creatives can be the biggest seller you have. Radio has gone digital and there is no reason why we can’t embrace that.
Digital audio includes digital radio, podcasts, emerging voice integrations and music streaming—the latter now worth a total of $251 billion. Audio isn't limited to iTunes; audio can be anything we want it to be.
Audio was previously seen as a difficult medium to measure, but now with the right data, marketers can push the digital audio sector even further by responding to listener's preferences and listening habits.