In a couple of weeks I’m chairing an event called Sounds Subliminal: Branding the future with audio in London.
The event is about the pros and cons of using sound as part of brand identity. There’s an impressive range of speakers, including Dan Jackson of Sonicbrand, who literally wrote the book on sonic branding, and Martyn Ware, now of Illustrious Company. See the event details for a full list of speakers and a link for registration (£80/50).
Communicating a message or feeling with non-verbal sound is a complex and tricky art. The Sonicbrand trailer refers to consistency of sound presentation such as the hold music and tone of voice used by a company’s call-centre. Consistency of sound presentation is one thing, but trying to get across a distinct message with sound is another. Here are a couple of quotes that encapsulate some of my scepticism about what is achievable.
If we are to understand music as a communicative medium it seems that we must look beyond the notion that music exists as sonic information communicated from performer to listener, and it may be that we must also look beyond the model of communication provided by information theory… The meaning or significance of a musical behaviour or a piece of music can rarely be pinned down unambiguously; music appears to be inherently ambiguous… music’s meanings can be less or more explicit according to the contexts in which it is encountered and according to the degree to which the constituents of the musical ‘sign’ may bear specific significances.
Ian Cross “Music and Meaning, Ambiguity and Evolution”, in Miell, MacDonald and Hargreaves (eds) Musical Communication, 02005, pages 29, 30, 34.
The recently established sensory communications group Brand Sense Agency said it was “extraordinary” that 83% of all commercial communication was visual because 75% of our emotions were influenced by what we smell, while there was a 65% chance our mood would change when we hear a new sound.
MediaGuardian, 31 January 02006.
The first quote captures how music is not a reliable or sensible way of getting an idea or proposition from one person’s head to another person’s head. The second is an example of the kind of brand-speak that smells very fishy to me, no matter what it sounds like.
If it were possible to design a message or a feeling into music or some other sound, then flower power would have worked. Last Saturday, I heard Joe Boyd talking about his forthcoming book and he was asked the old chestnut about music bringing about social change. In answering, he referred to the passage in Michael Herr’s Dispatches book about the Vietnam War where fighter pilots machine gun Vietnamese peasants while listening to Dylan and Hendrix on their headphones. Apparently Bob and Jimi weren’t getting their brand message across very successfully.
As a counter-example perhaps you could point to the likes of Václav Havel and the anti-totalitarian inspiration they said they took from Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground. But I suspect it wasn’t the music alone that Havel picked up on: the lyrics, cover art and other extra-musical elements contextualised the music into a coherent package. Perhaps that’s the answer: sound can work well when closely tied to other modalities.
Come along to the event to find out.