“Sounds of Brands / Brands of Sounds,” Week 1

Sound journals, syllabus, Fringe, JJ Abrams, Kit Kat, sonification, Gordon Hempton, Brian Eno, homework

Wednesday of this week was the first of the 15 weekly three-hour classes I’m teaching on sound at San Francisco’s Academy of Art (academyart.edu) this semester. I thought I’d take some notes here as the class proceeds.

I opened with an exercise, shown above. For the first 15 minutes no one spoke. Instructions were posted for the students to write down all the sounds they heard, and to write down sounds that came to mind as being normal for a Wednesday morning shortly after waking. (They’re now keeping a sound journal, and will for the remainder of the course. During next Wednesday’s class we’ll compare what they wrote down about actual sounds that morning versus those they had recalled from memory during the first class session.) Here, by way of example and reprinted with permission, is one student’s response to the first half of the exercise:

And here is the same student’s response to the second half of the exercise:

And here, just for comparison’s sake, is a second student’s response to the first half of the exercise:

And that same second student’s response to the second half of the exercise:

Then, after that silent opening period, I provided some initial background on the concept of a “sound journal,” drawing from, among other sources, Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening practice and R. Murray Schafer’s conception of the soundscape. I looked over the notes the students had taken, and referenced how some of them had written “ceiling fan” while others had written “whir of ceiling fan”; I pointed out that only the second is an actual sound, and emphasized that over the course of the course we’ll develop strong vocabularies to describe sound, as well as faculties to interpret sound and to develop creative pursuits involving sound. The path I laid out in a document I’m not reproducing here, just in the interest of relative concision, went as follows:

Hearing → Listening → Discerning → Describing → Analyzing → Interpreting → Implementing
Then I talked through the 15-week syllabus, which breaks into three sections: three weeks on “Listening to Media,” seven weeks on “Sounds of Brands,” and five weeks on “Brands of Sounds.” Here’s a PDF of the syllabus; the text is large because this is the document I prepared to project on screen in the classroom. And here’s the core text of the syllabus, trimmed a bit for this post:
“Sounds of Brands / Brands of Sounds” ADV 499-30: Special Topics: Sound Branding Syllabus

Part 1/3: Listening to Media

Week 1: Listening Overview: This week serves as an introduction to the course and to the cultures, theories, and practices that it explores.

Week 2: A Brief History of Sound Overview: We’ll trace overlapping paths through the history of sound, beginning with the human conception of sound, and then exploring the developing role of sound in modern media.

Week 3: The Score Overview: Music and sound in film and television, its purposes, and what we can learn from its history of development.

Part 2/3: Sounds of Brands

Week 4: The Jingle Overview: History of that corniest and, yet, most essential aspect of brand sound: the song that depicts a product and/or brand.

Week 5: Product Design Overview: How sounds are part of products, from the self-evident (alarm clocks, start-up sounds on computers) to the less so (electric cars, motorcycle engines, food).

Week 6: The Recording Session Overview: We’ll visit a recording studio and learn about how professional sound is recorded, who the decision-makers are in a production, the many steps that go into the recording process, and the kinds of decisions that are made during a recording.

Week 7: Retail Space Overview: How music is an essential part of the construction of retail environments, from shopping to restaurants.

Week 8: Tools Overview: An introduction to tools that anyone can use to do basic sound production.

Week 9: The Public Voice Overview: We’ll look at the human voice as a sonic element (in contrast to it being simply an execution of copywriting).

Week 10: The Explicit and the Implicit Overview: We’ll look back at the various threads we’ve explored thus far, and discern two key types of branded sound: the explicit reference and the implicit reference.

Part 3/3: Brands of Sounds

Week 11: Iconography Overview: What sound looks like, how it is depicted visually.

Week 12: Social Networks Overview: How music functions in online social networks.

Week 13: Digital Retail Overview: How music is sold online.

Week 14: Equipment Overview: How music equipment is sold.

Week 15: Selling an Album, Selling a Band Overview: Why is music PR so broken?

Sound is both a practical and a metaphorical pursuit in this course. The students are from the Academy of Art’s advertising department, many from the strategy/planning course of study. Sound is an essential part of contemporary culture, and knowledge of it will help them make their way. But in addition, the role of sound today has distinct parallels to current perceived methodologies in marketing — among other things, the pursuit of and attention to silence and to everyday noises in contemporary sound studies overlaps tellingly with marketing strategies that recognize that advertising is no longer about being the loudest, brashest message, that attempting to drown out the competition isn’t sufficient. That’s an overly simplistic description of what I’m after, but then again this is a blog post about a class that lasted almost three hours and served as the introduction to a 15-week course.

Just before the mid-class break I showed the opening credits to the TV show Fringe and talked about the sonic emphasis and themes in JJ Abrams’ work (Fringe, Lost, Alcatraz), like how the Philip Glass”“style minimalism theme song in Fringe correlates with certain cultural avenues (Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, Steve Reich’s Three Tales), and how some Lost elements found their way into Alcatraz (the torque of the Lost opening sound cue, the way the gates closing on Alcatraz sound like the mechanical rattle of the smoke monster on Lost), and how all three shows employ the turntable as a symbol of nostalgia and memory. (I forgot to mention how Dr. Rosen in Alphas, not a JJ Abrams show, keeps old Yes prog rock on vinyl in his office, in what appears to be a nod to Fringe‘s Dr. Bishop, who is also a Yes fan.)

Then we took a 15-minute break.

The rest of the class focused on roughly 20-minute segments, mini-lectures as examples of the sort of classes that we’d be having. This first class was very much about immersion, about the breadth and depth and variety of the culture we’ll be exploring. Taking a visual cue (and one term) from the opening credits of Fringe, I displayed a page of terms that might be unfamiliar to some of the students; the goal wasn’t for them to understand them today — the goal was to project ahead to the end of the full 15 weeks, when they might be able to employ these and other terms and concepts fluently:

I showed the opening credits again of Fringe and then showed two variations on the Fringe opening credits (the red-tinted one that signals the alternate Earth, and the retro-1980s one that was used once during a flashback episode), and talked about how the culture of playing with a brand theme rather than feeling the need to stick to it like a cemented mantra. I used that as an opportunity to talk briefly about other TV/movie touchstones as initial examples of sonic ingenuity: Walter Murch (American Graffiti, The Conversation), Southland (drama without score), MAS*H (sitcom without laugh track), The Social Network (underscoring). We’ll be spending the full class during week three to talk about developments in sound in cinema and television.

Then we watched four commercials for the candy Kit Kat: one (dating from before the “Gimme a Break Jingle”) that included the sound of the Kit Kat bar snapping at the very end, then an early collection of multi-genre interpretations of the Kit Kat jingle, and then two recent versions of the Kit Kat jingle where all the sounds are derived from the “real world.” In these latter two commercials, the jingle is performed with snaps of the candy, and keyboard typing, and other noises. We discussed how that is both an example of creative use of field recordings, and of how creative execution links back to the brand (the sounds all were from either eating the candy or from people’s work, tying it all back to the idea of “taking a break”). Then we talked briefly about examples of strong brand associations with music: Honda (its sponsorship of the Civic Tour), Apple and iTunes (and its predecessor in the “TV ad as indie-radio tastemaker,” Volkswagen), and Starbucks (which in its music sales is essentially selling the atmosphere of its stores).

Then we focused briefly on “sonification,” with examples of sonified data about pollution (a recent experiment in the Caldecott Tunnel in the Berkeley Hills, via baycitizen.org), and the wonderful sonification of the NYC subway at the mta.me website:

Then went over the homework assignment for next week: (1) watch Gordon Hempton’s Soundtracker documentary (it’s streaming on Amazon for $2.99), (2) read Brian Eno’s essay about perfume (“Scents and Sensibility,” from the July 1992 issue of the magazine Details), and (3) start a sound diary. Here’s the trailer for the Hempton video:

I don’t know if I’ll be doing these roundups every week, but it seemed helpful to do one at the opening of the class.

4 thoughts on ““Sounds of Brands / Brands of Sounds,” Week 1

  1. If I may be so bold, I would love it if you posted weekly about this course. This was a fabulous review, I loved how it extended my own attention to your goals, and I’d be happy to keep up to date on the course. Thank you for this post alone!

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