• Michael Spencer

Soundings: innovation and taking part…fast food music…health and beauty

Innovation and taking part – Michael Spencer is struck by the power of participation. Fast food music – Andrew Peggie wonders whether creative directors are gorging on easy musical fixes. Listening to health & beauty – how can music be part of the healthy living sell online? Sound Strategies news – feature for B2B Marketing magazine; Music Tank seminars.


Innovation and taking part

Sound Strategies was on the conference circuit last week, appearing at two thought-provoking events promoted by the market research organisation BrainJuicer. Two impressions remain: strategically mediated sound is still a very new concept, and the learning process can be very powerful when people actively participate.

The conferences were hosted by Unilever (Kingston, UK) and Philips International (Amsterdam) and the topic was ‘Innovation’. In addition to our own contribution, speakers included Mark Earls, author of the latest marketing sensation  Herd: the hidden truth about who we are, Andrew Gaule from H-I Networks who talked about Open Innovation, and the CEO of Brainjuicer, John Kearon, who presented an overview of his ESOMAR paper about the paradoxical role failure plays in success. Fascinating contributions too from the respective hosts.  Unilever fielded B.V. Pradeep (VP Consumer & Market Insight) who introduced their method of insight building, and Jaroslav Cyr talked about the new opportunities presented by Google and Facebook for market research. For Philips, Emile Aarts (Head, New Media Systems & Applications, Philips Research) outlined an extraordinarily wide ranging list of research projects stretching from stress reduction technologies for hospital patients to electronic tattoos.

Emile also reminded us of the role Philips played in the creation of multi-media experiences, starting with the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair in 1958. This radical piece of architecture with its mathematically calculated hyperbolic paraboloid shapes, and equally challenging images and soundscapes was designed by the architect Le Corbusier, his assistant (and composer) Iannis Xenakis and the composer Edgard Varèse. Varèse’s extraordinary Poème Electronique, devised for the Pavilion and one of the world’s first pieces of music created using purely electronic sound sources, still leaves audiences today mystified as to its intention – as was shown by the reaction of the conference delegates in Amsterdam.

Here was a team of true innovators at work, all of whom made unique contributions to their individual fields of expertise. Varèse’s, impact on the development of electronic music has a very long tail indeed, which can be traced right through to current popular music cultures. DJ-ing, beatboxing, mashing, sampling – all have their origins in the work of this pioneer. The thumbprint of Varèse is even more predominant in the sound adventures of contemporary artists such as Scanner. Despite its pedigree, however, the general perception of Poème Electronique is that this fifty year-old work is just too challenging, new and experimental.

In its defence one might suggest that personal listening habits are often less adventurous than they could be. Moreover, at the conference the sounds were not being heard in their intended architectural setting, integrated with images and diffused through specially designed spaces.

The issue is not unique to the Phillips Pavilion of course. Service-scape design also seeks to present an integrated visitor experience. Recent research has pointed to the importance of regarding the different elements of a  service-scape as an organic whole. In line with Gestalt theory, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We have written about this in previous issues of Soundings , in relation to the use of multimedia on the web, and it served also as the core of our presentation at the conferences.

We left the delegates with a question and two challenges.

The question: If they used audio in any form at all – podcast, streamed video, navigation, ambient – how did their process of selecting it compare with the processes they used for creating a visual presence?

Leading to the challenges:


  1. To move audio up the agenda to stand as an equal alongside graphic design and copy-writing.

  2. To be more adventurous in their own listening, as the decisions they make will undoubtedly carry the influence of their own experience.

And hence to the second point that stood out in our conference experience: the power of participative learning. There is something awe-inspiring about the way in which the light goes on in people’s minds when they are given the opportunity to engage, in a practical sense, with the concepts which have just been propounded. All the more so when dealing with matters of sound, an element with which we have such an intimate and yet social connection.

It brings to mind the old maxim about suffering from Eunuch Syndrome.  You can read about it, you can talk about it, but you can’t actually… well you understand where this is going. This is why we go all the way in our presentations.

When Woody Allen said ‘90% of success is showing up,’ the rest has to be about getting involved.

Contact Sound Strategies to find out more about how we get people involved.

Michael Spencer

Fast food music.

TV commercials are short and getting shorter. For there to be any chance of getting the message across via music, commercial directors and composers have to rely increasingly on what music psychologists refer to as iconic perception. This is where stimuli inherent in the structure and processes of the music itself may signify and even induce certain basic emotions. Iconic perception in music is interesting because it appears to connect deep musical structure with physiological states such increased heart rate. In other words, there are some aspects of music, unrelated to style, genre, culture or context, which have built-in affective and possibly even arousal qualities.

In fact most children already know this.

Give them the chance to play with sounds and they will instinctively manipulate these very properties: a speeding up rhythm followed by a crash-bang; meandering low sounds for monsters; high spectrum sounds to signify fear; a heart-beat… the classic ‘haunted house’ piece. And few people will have difficulty thinking of commercial examples used constantly to evoke fast cars, refreshing skin care, edgy fashion, playful animals, nervous anticipation, domestic bliss, etc.

Some of the scientific groundwork was laid in 1977 by Klaus R. Scherer and James S. Oshinsky in a paper entitled Cue Utilization in Emotion Attribution from Auditory Stimuli in which they correlated ten basic emotions with combinations of specific music elements. Their work relates also to speech where they found that, even with actors feigning certain emotions by reproducing the relevant speech inflections, listeners achieved a high degree of agreement on which emotion was being portrayed.

All this appears to be good news for audio in advertising and the media. Macho energy with an undertone of imminent danger (new face-care technology perhaps)? No problem – just consult the Scherer and Oshinsky table!

Except that there are many other factors – musical, cultural, personal and environmental – which affect our responses to music. And there are roles other than provoking iconic reactions that music can play in the audio-video mix. The former are hard to anticipate and impossible to manage, but the different ways music can work in multi-media are fully within the control of the creators and there is no reason why the specific function of music should not be a part of the creative planning process.

Music almost always works best when it has time to settle into a rhythm and pace. Often its chief asset is its absence – silence. Understandably, the broadcast media seem to fear silence the same way print editors fear blank space on a page of small ads. And the tiny timescales of commercials will always present a creative challenge in this respect. And because iconic arousal works it will continue to be a musical solution of last resort – rather like fast food on the move.

However, the current media environment is changing and we are beginning to see some of the negative effects of its over-use. With more ads per minute all vying for attention, the temptation to resort to instant, no-frills emotion-grabbing is high. But the more these stock musical gestures are used, the less attention people pay. We cannot close our ears to uninvited sounds, so instead we reduce our attention and learn to ignore them. The problem with this is that in doing so, we desensitize ourselves to the very iconic perception elements of music which are meant to be the bedrock of our emotional engagement.

Is it possible that the mechanistic use of iconic arousal is now having a negative effect on product or brand perception through the desensitization caused by associating them with musical clichés undifferentiated by originality, variety or subtlety? Is the drive towards emotional engagement backfiring, as the iconic vocabulary of music in the media becomes ever more emaciated?

Andrew Peggie

Listening to health and beauty

The world of health and beauty products has colonised the web with much enthusiasm. Opportunities for interactive engagement and ‘artistic’ presentations are rarely missed. And the offer of any kind of health or medical advice for free (no matter how superficial) will always appear to add both cognitive and affective value to a site and its brand.

In the real world, music and health have always had strong associations.  So perhaps the internet would be a fruitful environment in which to offer some music-related health benefits. However, evidence so far suggests that brand managers have a long way to go in terms of exploiting the potential combination of music with consumer health products.

Nivea UK has gone several steps further than most with a content-rich site divided into several conceptual areas, each with substantial multi-media options. Though not specifically health related, the Nivea history page out-does everyone else in terms of its information offer. In addition to the ubiquitous timeline, the site offers a choice of four guided tours: TV/cinema commercials, the tin as brand image, advertising posters and innovations. Click on the TV/cinema link and you have access to fifteen Nivea commercials covering every decade from the 1920s onwards. Dozens more print ads and posters are available, with accompanying commentary.

The interest from a web audio viewpoint is how the Nivea colour, font and logo have remained virtually unchanged since 1924 whereas not a single unifying musical element is present, even among the dozens of flash animations available throughout the site network.

A set of Body and Soul videos, for example, aim to induce various healthy habits such as toning, relaxing and keeping fresh with product-related tips, images and anodyne sound track loops. The approach to musical mood setting appears to be to strip out any element that might give the track a hint of originality. Lowest common denominator appeal. Music as anaesthetic.

Colgate Palmolive has a personal care landing page with similar dreamy/dreary synthesizer chords and a tinkly counterpoint typical for such products. Unfortunately the soundscape is more naïve/aimless than calming/relaxing, and quickly leads to a search for the ‘off’ button. A pity, since elsewhere the website shows evidence of an emerging audio awareness. Click on Rest & Reflect and the page loads to the sound of rainforest birds. There follow some short new-age-ish videos combining exotic imagery and sounds with patronising voice-ov ers enunciating therapeutic instructions rather too clearly – as if the viewer were mentally challenged. The music and images are available separately as downloads, however. And a neat little interactive feature allows the visitor to create a greetings card from a series of separate image, music and text templates.

Colgate Palmolive clearly aims to generate an on-site mood appropriate to its products. Radox, on the other hand, is content simply to offer text instructions on the best ways to relax and keep healthy. Though it runs to some images of typical medicinal herbs, the site is entirely silent. At least it won’t keep you from starting that relaxing bath routine it so meticulously describes.

Andrew Peggie

Sound Strategies News

A Sound Strategies article features in a November issue of B2B Marketing. Check the features columns for a piece on good practice web audio in marketing.

The August edition of Soundings carried an extensive article about music marketing/sharing on the web. The controversy rumbles on, but one organisation in the UK seems determined to find solutions untainted by blatant commercial self-interest and unfazed by de facto illegalities. Music Tank is hosting a series of discussions covering all the issues – technology, legality, marketing and economics – with presentations by music business professionals. The first session (We are here now, entertain us) has already been and gone , but there are three more:

  1. We have the technology. What’s the solution? (Nov 4, 18.30)

  2. Coalition of the Billing (Nov 18, 18.30)

  3. Squaring the circle (Dec 2, 18.30)

The sessions take place at the MCPS-PRS Alliance, Berners Street, London. Full session and booking details from the links, and here. Soundings will carry a short report in due course.

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