Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Sounds of Our Lives

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If you had to ‘brand’ your city or town with a tune, what would it be? In New York City’s case, it’s hard to go past Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’ (though “Welcome to New York” by Taylor Swift is a lively reprise). However, most of the sound we typically associate with the place we live is accidental and unpleasant. We stand on street corners shouting over the sound of passing traffic. We’re certainly not humming along to Frank Sinatra.

A recent article raised an interesting question about why brands, but not cities, have sonic strategies. Brands have been pairing sounds and music with products, companies, organizations and ideas for decades. Composer Walter Werzowa’s five note ‘Intel bong’ jingle is arguably one of the most famous, reportedly broadcast once every five minutes somewhere in the world.

‘Sonic strategy’ in the context of towns and cities refers to a wide range of sounds. Sure, we have the usual sirens, subway announcements and crosswalk signals that usher us through our daily lives. But where’s the sonic Feng Shui?

Joel Beckerman, composer of jingles for AT&T, CBS and others, argues that bad sound is as detrimental to quality of life as bad streetlights or poor sidewalks. He wants us to start thinking with our ears and about the impact of our ‘sonic environment’. A TED talk by Julian Treasure, ‘4 ways sound affects us’, makes a similar appeal to raise sound in our consciousness, arguing that bad sounds are bad for our health and productivity.

Savvy sound designers are starting to do more. In Tokyo, subway stations each have their own jingle as a way to identify different stops. The Moscow metro indicates a train’s direction by using either a male or female announcer. Simple. Innovative.

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