My 33 1/3 book, on Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II, was the 5th bestselling book in the series in 2014. It's available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

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tag: sounds-of-brands

Listeners on Listening

Four questions about sharing one's personal experience with music and sound.

2015-10-11 17.15.20 copy

Steve Ashby, who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently asked me four questions about listening. Ashby is posing these same four questions to a variety of people. The questions are all about listening, and the answers are intended to inform a music-appreciation course that he teaches at VCU. As I worked on my responses to his questions I asked him some questions — yeah, interview an interviewer and you inevitably get interviewed back — for some background on his teaching. He explained:

I’ve noticed in the classes that I teach, as soon as I start playing a piece of music, say Mozart, Bach, what have you, the students’ attention drifts back to their phone, or other distraction. For all intents and purposes, making the music essentially white noise. … I thought maybe getting perspectives on listening from the music community might be useful. With a handful of perspectives from people in different realms of the music industry, we might be able to find a common thread that opens up new avenues of what it means to listen to music.

The first couple years teaching the course I followed the standard blueprint of an overview lecture through music history, from Chant to Stravinsky. Glazed over eyes, and too many PowerPoints, made me realize I need to rethink this. What’s the point of talking about specific music forms and terminology, when students’ ears aren’t tuned in or turned on to the sound surrounding them. Sounds and music outside of their comfort zone. As one of my guitar teachers used to say, you’ve got to create the space, before you can fill it.

Ashby also mentioned the musician Lawrence English, Simon Scott’s Below Sea Level album, the field recorder Gordon Hempton, and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer as influences on his thinking, and in particular how a recent read of Peter Szendy’s Listen — this line in particular: “Can one make a listening listened to? Can I transmit my listening, unique as it is?”— had woken his ears to the sounds around him:

Bitten by the field recording bug, I began recording my walks to work, around town, outside my apartment, and noticed a big difference in what I heard at the time versus what was recorded. Remembering each step, but hearing my breath and surroundings differently. (The cicadas were loud this summer.)

Below are his four questions and my responses. If you’re interesting in participating, certainly feel free to in the comments below. Ashby has been part of the Guitar Faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University for a decade, and has taught music appreciation for nearly half of that.

1. You buy a new album. Describe your ritual/experience of its first listening.

I’m not sure I have a ritual, aside from listening to it as soon as possible. Most of the music I purchase I do so digitally, and when I purchase physical albums (CD, vinyl, cassette) I generally do so online. The latter often come with a download code, which means I have a digital copy before the physical copy even arrives in the mail. In fact, the most recent cassette tape I purchased — at a record store across town — came with a download code, and I downloaded it to my phone while taking the bus back home. Come to think of it, I only have a cassette player at my office, not at home, so it’s a darn good thing the cassette had that download code. Otherwise I would have had to wait a few days. Anyhow, I purchase music in such varied circumstances, I can’t say I have much of a ritual, again aside from listening to it as soon as possible. I will add that the more excited I am about a release, the more I try to diminish my expectations in advance of hitting the play button. One genre-specific ritual I have is that I listen to a lot of film music, and I try to listen to a movie’s score before I go to the theater to see it. A side note: I get an enormous amount of music for free, because I write about music and work with musicians, which means my inbox and my mailbox are inundated with, respectively, zip files and packages. I have music playing most of the day, less so in the evening. When I’m intrigued by a piece of music, I’ll often put it on repeat, sometimes for hours. The most extreme version of this is when I wrote my 33 1/3 book on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II, which took about a year, just about every day of which I listened to one track off the record over and over.

2. On subsequent listens to that same record, which aspects of the music do you focus your listening on. Does this change over time? How?

If there’s a track I like a lot at first, I’ll try to avoid it for awhile. After a few listens to an album, I’ll often put the album on shuffle, so I can listen to the tracks more remotely, more apart from each other. The biggest influence on how my listening changes over time is physical circumstances. I am amazed how different headphones, different speakers, different moods can change how a record sounds. (In the photo at the top of this post, the large black headphones are the ones I use at home, and the metal earbuds are the ones I use when I’m out and about. I also have some noise-canceling headphones for plane flights.)

3. If you could choose your favorite listening environment, what would it be? What draws you to that place to hear the music you’re listening to?

I like to listen to music in lots of different contexts. The primary places I listen to music are at my desk at home, at my desk at my office, in my living room at home, in my kitchen at home, while walking, and while on the bus. If I had to choose one favorite, it’d be wearing headphones while alone on the bus, enjoying the clarity that headphones provide, and the way music shapes everyday experience into a narrative. There’s nothing like taking a mundane bus trip while listening to a score fom a science fiction film or a thriller.

4. How does one make their listening listened to?

To take a step back, I should clarify my sense of the word “listening,” because it happens to be a word I use a lot. I teach a course on the role of sound in the media landscape at an art school, and I spend the first three weeks of the 15-week course discussing listening. To me, listening, clearly, applies broadly to the everyday experience of being in the world, of hearing the world. In fact, it’s hard for me to separate that sense of the word from the more specific context we’re working with here, where we’re mostly talking about listening to music. That said, there is, I think, a helpful transition from the “active listening” that I think of in regard to everyday life, to listening to music. There are lots of ways to make one’s listening listened to. I’ll describe four here, the first three of which I participate in, and the last being one I like to observe.

A. Dorm Space: For me, the single best social scenario for listening to listening to music — when my listening was listened to — was back in college, and it’s probably not repeatable in my daily life as an adult. I had a single dorm room my junior and my senior year, and I was always listening to music when I was in it. It became my habit in senior year to just leave my door open, and invariably people would walk through the hallway, hear something, and come in. There were frequently two or more people in my room in addition to me, listening to whatever I was listening to, sometimes while I was doing my homework. I think my listening then was kind of “performative.” I would talk about what was playing, move back and forth between records. My dorm room was like the world’s smallest radio station, one that broadcast only a few feet beyond the station’s doorway.

B. Radio DJ: I also DJ’d in college, in the radio sense of the word “DJ,” and I think DJing in that radio sense of the word is a fine example of having your listening listened to. I had a jazz show that was pretty straightforward, and a classical show, which was a mix of contemporary music and ancient vocal music, and where the two things often met — Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening and Steve Reich’s Tehilim feel very comfortable next Byrd and Palestrina. I also did a more freeform show, which would broaden the classical material to add in pop and rock that smacked of minimalism: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Brian Eno’s solo ambient stuff, lots of Robert Fripp, Fela, King Sunny Ade, and so on. Making connections between those records, whether simply by playing them in sequence or commenting on them after one track ended and before the next began, was a way of putting those connections in the listener’s head as to what I heard in the music, what I was listening to, listening for, in the music.

C. Music Criticism: I have written about music since I was in high school, and I think of writing about music as a means to express what I hear. It’s the primary way that I express my listening. This is recursive. To write about music, I need to think about my own listening — I need to listen to my listening — and that reflection then becomes the raw material for what I write. The single best advice I ever got in regard to writing about music was to use the writing to help explain how to listen to the music — not that there’s necessarily one way to listen to a piece of music.

D. Music About Music: All bands, the saying goes, begin as cover bands. This isn’t to say that every band is literally a cover band, performing some other band’s songs. What it means is that all bands begin with their influences plainly apparent, perhaps as homage, often as denied imitation, and then the good ones proceed over time to develop their own identity. Much music is built from pre-existing sound: sample-based hip-hop, quotations in jazz, electronic music that employs field recordings and presets (presets being audio and other tools that come as part of digital instruments). Just because the source audio remains evident in some of this work doesn’t mean that the artist has not fully consumed the material. But stepping back from even the most artfully assembled piece, like Steve Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain” or the Dust Brothers’ production of the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, one has the opportunity to hear how the musicians hear, what it is they listen for, what sorts of sounds register with their ears and align with their creative impulses. If you listen closely to their acts of sampling you can listen to them listening.

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Sound Class, Week 7 of 15: Explicit vs. Implicit

Vocabulary refresher, a useful series of quadrants, breakfast cereal, OS startup sounds

20150324-class7

On the very first day of class I share this sequence:

Hearing → Listening → Discerning → Describing → Analyzing → Interpreting → Implementing →

That is, in a handful or so of words, a map of the 15-week course that I teach on the role of sound in the media landscape at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.

The first semester I taught the course, back in 2012, a student raised a hand from the back of the room and asked, in effect, if I am making up any of the words we use. I suppose hearing “anechoic” and “acoustemology,” among other less esoteric terms, over and over takes its toll, and I replied that I did not make up any of the words. I did, however, take responsibility for two familiar words used in a particular context. Those words, and that context, are the subject of week 7.

First some background on the course, in case this is the first week you’ve read one of these summaries: Each week of the 15-week course my plan is to summarize the previous class session here. Please keep in mind that three hours of lecture and discussion is roughly 25,000 words; this summary is just an outline, in this case less than 10 percent of what occurs in class. Some class meetings emphasize more discussion than others. Week 7 this semester is especially discussion-heavy, and hence the lecture outline here is fairly cursory.

I start off week 7 by reviewing recent vocabulary. When this goes well, we don’t stop with the words I initially reprise, words like “soundscape” and “soundmark,” and, yes, “anechoic” and “acoustemology.” We discuss how the first two develop out of the work of R. Murray Schafer, how the third relates to John Cage, and how the fourth comes out of the work of Steven Feld. To revisit the previous week’s class meeting, on the role of sound in retail space, we discuss Ray Oldenburg’s concept of the “Third Place.” In turn, student queries lead to additional vocabulary refreshes, among them sonic equivalents of so-called “skeuomorphism” design (the shutter sound of digital cameras serves as a good example), “haptic” feedback, and the difference between a “neologism” and a “retronym.”

Then we proceed to those two fairly common terms I mentioned up above, “explicit” and “implicit,” which we employ in a specific context. For the purposes of discussion, an “explicit” sound related to a subject is one closely tied, in the public imagination, to it, such as the “pop pop, fizz fizz” of Alka-Seltzer, or the anthropomorphized Snap, Crackle, and Pop of Rice Krispies. In contrast, “implicit” sounds are those that are to some extent inherent in a given subject, but that are not fully, for lack of a more nuanced term, branded. Different makes of door lock, for example, will sound different upon close inspection, but it would be hard to make a case that to anyone other than a discerning thief those sounds are closely associated with the locks.

We begin by drawing a grid, two by two, and we put those two words on the Y axis. On the X axis, horizontally, we write “category” and “product.” The remainder of week 7 involves working through how sounds can be oriented in those four quadrants. This plays out in various ways, largely as a result of group discussion, and thus it doesn’t translate particularly well to summary. So, I’ll just emphasize some things I’ve learned when teaching this class:

  • It’s important to keep top of mind that the quadrants in this two-by-two grid are along a continuum. Students often mistake them as four independent if interrelated categories. That’s not the case.

  • An operating system startup sound is a useful example. The startup sound itself began deep in the implicit/category zone, and was later elevated to explicit/product when Apple and Windows, just to note two examples, developed unique audio logos.

Homework: The homework for week 8 is to take another pass on the research from week 7, which involved the development of a “sonic audit.” This week in class we take time, in small groups, to compare notes about how to apply the explicit/implicit grids to the students’ chosen topics, which range from Oreo cookies to Nike sneakers to Rolex watches. The assignment is as follows: Do a “sonic audit”of a specific brand/product of your choosing.

Your brand/product should not be inherently sonic; that is, for example, it should be a candy bar, not a headphone — a clothing store, not an MP3 player — an airline, not a mobile music app. You will explore the role of sound in the brand/product that you select. (You can, alternately, elect to focus on an industry/category, such as the Got Milk? and National Pork Board campaigns.)

In the process of developing your sonic audit you should look deeply at the brand/product from numerous viewpoints, such as, but not exclusive to, the following: (a) sounds inherent in the category, (b) sounds exclusive to the brand/product, (c) cultural references (e.g., song lyrics), (d) brand history (e.g., jingles, concert sponsorships, musician spokespeople), etc. Your presentation of your findings should consist not only of exhaustive examples you locate, but of the “cultural meaning”of what you discern. How you present this material is up to you, but it should be substantial. We’ve used short essays in assignments and four-quadrant grids in class, and those are particularly recommended. In the end, the documentation should state and support a specific point of view about the sonic properties of the brand.

Next week: The software tools of sound, with an emphasis on Audacity and, just to nudge things a little, Max/MSP.

Note: I’ve tried to do these week-by-week updates of the course in the past, and I’m hopeful this time I’ll make it through all 15 weeks. Part of what held me up in the past was adding videos and documents, so this time I’m going to likely bypass that.

This first appeared in the March 24, 2015, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound”email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Sound Class, Week 6 of 15: Retail Space

Musique concrète, Ray Oldenburg's Third Place, sonic audits, coffee, homework

20150310-week6

I was once eating dinner at a Japanese restaurant that was, truly, a mom and pop operation. Pop was in the back, preparing the food, and Mom was the sole waiter. There were no other evident employees, not even a dishwasher. Between the two of them they managed the tiny space, which had maybe six small tables in it. The mood was relaxed, the room quiet, the diners committed to an unwritten agreement to keep their conversations private. A light bit of music could be heard at a low volume, tasteful bits of ancient French pop songs, elegant pre-fusion jazz, and atmospheric cues from post-orchestral movie soundtracks. Nothing in the evening’s music sounded Japanese in origin, nor did it sound out of place. I asked Mom what we were listening to. She signaled that she would let me know soon, but that she was busy with all the tables. Later in the meal she appeared at my side and handed me, without comment, a thin, flimsy square of paper. A pink sleeve, it was the envelope that contained the CD we were all hearing. I turned the square around in my hands and read the cover text. It was a music sampler CD from a large chain of retail clothing stores.

It is generally understood that music can change the mood of a place. What became clear to me that evening was that a place can influence the appreciation of music. The role of sound in public commercial settings is a symbiotic one.

The sonic capacity of retail space is the subject of week 6 of the 15-week course that I teach on the role of sound in the media landscape at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. After three weeks spent studying listening, we then spend seven weeks on the second arc of the course: “sounds of brands.”(A third and final arc, “brands of sounds,”begins week 11.) After spending week 4 on the history of the jingle and week 5 on the role of sound in product design, we proceed to “retail space.”Each week of the 15-week course my plan is to summarize the previous class session here. Please keep in mind that three hours of lecture and discussion is roughly 25,000 words; this summary is just an outline, in this case less than 10 percent of what occurs in class.

We begin week 6 by revisiting the previous week’s class, and related recent vocabulary. We talk about how the terms “soundscape” and “soundmark” and “acoustemology” inform our understanding of sound in product design. While R. Murray Schafer did not develop the first two terms with product design in mind, a consideration of the use case for a given product certainly would include its sonic context, and in turn the sounds directly associated with, unique to, a given product would certainly constitute its soundmarks, akin therefore not only to “landmark” but to “trademark.” I talk a bit more about Schafer’s work in acoustic ecology, and while correcting my accidental misspelling of his family name I connect him to his near-namesake, Pierre Schaeffer, who developed musique concrète. If Schafer wanted to preserve the sounds around us, then Schaeffer wanted to make something new of them: music constructed from everyday and other pre-recorded sound.

In part I revisit these terms from the week prior to reinforce them, but also to reference how we first discuss philosophical matters before proceeding to practical ones. Only after talking about soundscapes do we talk about how Audi uses an anechoic chamber to construct sounds for its electric cars, and how Harley-Davidson failed in its attempt to register a trademark of its motorcycle engine noise.

This week only after the introduction of new terminology will we proceed to how coffee shops and clothiers use music to construct their environments, and connect to consumers. This week we talk about “the third place,” the phrase developed by Ray Oldenburg to describe the place that is neither the first place, home, or the second place, work. As Oldenburg writes, the third place is one “in which people relax in good company and do so on a regular basis. Some have coffee there before work. Some have a beer there after work. … Some drop by whenever it’s convenient.” I am quoting from Oldenburg’s introduction to Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories About the “Great Good Places” at the Heart of Our Communities, a collection he edited. Using his theories as a starting point, I make his connection to Tocqueville sense of Americans’ “habit of association.”

We work through the idea of the third place, discussing as a group examples, and probing outlying cases. If a cafe and a barbershop and bar are classic third places, what then of a gym, or a place of worship, or a sports arena? What of public transportation? Most semesters someone asks about online spaces, like message boards and the comments of favorite websites and email discussion lists.

And only then do we move from generalities to specifics, from theory to application. I walk through a variety of examples, discussing first a major coffee retailer, and how its CEO emphasizes the role of third place in his development of the ubiquitous chain. I talk about the various ways in which the chain reverse-outsources its environment, letting you bring home, after purchase, not only its coffee beans, but the cups it serves coffee in, and how somewhat inevitably, after paying a lot of attention to the music in its stores, the company got into the music business. Just this month this chain announced it was going to stop selling CDs in its stores, but that is not a reflection of its attention to music, just of the marketplace for physical recordings. We dissect a coffee-shop television commercial, how the music and everyday sounds combine to make a certain impression. We then continue on through examples of music in retail spaces, and from the samplers of franchises to the online listening stations of clothing stores, an idea that connects back to the first week of this arc of the class, about how today’s branded playlists on streaming-music services nod to the sponsored radio hours of a century ago.

And since we didn’t have the time last week, we talk about the Jacques Tati movie Playtime. While it was assigned in advance of a class meeting on the role of sound in product design, it just as well serves the purpose of discussion of the role of music, and more broadly sound, in public spaces.

We have recently completed one “sonic audit” project and are about to embark on another one, and so we talk through the components of an audit, how one can thoroughly extract from a given subject the way sound plays a role in it. For a given retailer, what songs are associated with it, what is the sonic nature of its physical environment, how is it, perhaps, itself the subject of musical cultural references, such as song lyrics? These and other lines of inquiry comprise the sonic audit of a given subject. (Also, I’ve been myself recently working on a public-space project related to music. It’s not quite ready for me to talk about here, but I hope to soon. In class I discuss in some detail how the project came to be, and how music is being employed to reinforce the public space that it is filling.)

I revisit the quadrants we discussed last week, the ones in which we have “explicit” and “implicit” along one axis and “product” and “category” along the perpendicular axis. That means of coordinating sonic matters, of placing them in relative positions, will inform their new homework assignments. We’ll be discussing these quadrants in detail next week.

  • Homework

They will continue their sound journals, in which they write four times a week. And they will do the first of a two-part project, titled “Sonic Audit.” The instructions are as follows: The first part is to do a “sonic audit”of a specific brand/product of your choosing.

Your brand/product should not be inherently sonic; that is, for example, it should be a candy bar, not a headphone — a clothing store, not an MP3 player — an airline, not a mobile music app. You will explore the role of sound in the brand/product that you select. (You can, alternately, elect to focus on an industry/category, such as the Got Milk? and National Pork Board campaigns.)

In the process of developing your sonic audit you should look deeply at the brand/product from numerous viewpoints, such as, but not exclusive to, the following: (a) sounds inherent in the category, (b) sounds exclusive to the brand/product, (c) cultural references (e.g., song lyrics), (d) brand history (e.g., jingles, concert sponsorships, musician spokespeople), etc. Your presentation of your findings should consist not only of exhaustive examples you locate, but of the “cultural meaning”of what you discern. How you present this material is up to you, but it should be substantial. We’ve used short essays in assignments and four-quadrant grids in class, and those are particularly recommended. In the end, the documentation should state and support a specific point of view about the sonic properties of the brand.

Next week: the explicit and the implicit.

Note: I’ve tried to do these week-by-week updates of the course in the past, and I’m hopeful this time I’ll make it through all 15 weeks. Part of what held me up in the past was adding videos and documents, so this time I’m going to likely bypass that.

This first appeared in the March 10, 2015, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound”email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Sound Class, Week 5 of 15: Product Design

Soundscape, soundmark, acoustemology -> potato chips, Harley engines, Windows 95

A potato chip, an electric car, and a TV network all walk into a classroom …

Well, not the best start to a joke. Nor is, “What do a motorcycle, an alarm clock, and an operating system have in common?” But however poorly crafted the jokes, the extent to which consumer products not considered inherently sonic often have strongly considered, and sometimes legally contested, sonic profiles is a rich topic to explore.

The role of sound in product design is the subject of week 5 of the 15-week course that I teach on the role of sound in the media landscape at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. After three weeks spent studying listening, we now spend seven weeks on the second arc of the course: “sounds of brands.”(A third and final arc, “brands of sounds,” begins week 11.) After spending week 4 on the history of the jingle, we proceed to “product design.” Each week of the 15-week course my plan is to summarize the previous class session here. Please keep in mind that three hours of lecture and discussion is roughly 25,000 words; this summary is just an outline, in this case less than 10 percent of what occurs in class.

Before we dive into particular products and their respective sonic design components, I back up to a broader subject, one that we then use to consider the role of sound in product design. I start by exploring the word “soundscape,” as developed by composer and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer. I share this definition of soundscape: “[W]e regard the sounds of the environment as a great macro-cultural composition, of which man and nature are the composer/performers.” I explain how the definition appears in a document developed by Schafer’s World Soundscape Project, which he founded in 1969 at Simon Fraser University. The quote is from the World Soundscape Project Document No. 4 of 4: A Survey of Community Noise By-Laws in Canada, published in 1972. We talk about “soundscape” frequently in the class, and today we focus on it for the longest time of the semester, discussing how the term is rooted in the idea of a “landscape,” and how the terms differ. I mention that the “composer/performers” description might be helpfully expanded to “composer/performers/audience.”

From “soundscape” we move to “soundmark,” utilizing this helpful employment, also by R. Murray Schafer, from his 1977 book The Tuning of the World, later re-titled The Soundscape: “Once a soundmark has been identified, it deserves to be protected, for soundmarks make the acoustic life of a community unique.” We discuss how much as “soundscape” is rooted in the term “landscape,” the term “soundmark” is rooted in “landmark” — and also, arguably, in “trademark,” which comes up later in today’s class. One of the great things about teaching at the Academy of Art is the international make-up of the student body, and we spend time today with people noting soundmarks from their own hometowns. I mention Big Ben in London, and the streetcars of New Orleans, and the Tuesday noon siren in San Francisco as examples.

Whenever I introduce a new term in class — from “ambient” to “anechoic” to “room tone” to “retronym” — I make a point that I ultimately don’t care if the students remember the specific words. I care that they remember the ideas the words represent. That’s a helpful distinction. It’s easy to remember specific definitions of terms, but harder to learn how to really employ a word, an idea, in one’s thoughts and writings. We do exercises where we explore the ideas inherent in a given term, without using the words at all. I don’t care if they remember the word “anechoic” years from now; I care that they remember the concept of the anechoic chamber, and perhaps have to scratch their head to remember what the actual word is.

I introduce the day’s third major new vocabulary term by explaining that it is the most complex of all the terms we’ll discuss, and the one they’re likely to have the greatest difficulty with. The word is “acoustemology,” and I find it highly useful. Here is the definition: “local conditions of acoustic sensation, knowledge, and imagination embodied in the culturally particular sense of place.”That’s from Steven Feld’s “Waterfalls of Song”in the collection Senses of Place, published in 1996. The term is a useful expansion of the idea of a “soundscape.” One of the complications of talking about a soundscape with students is the difference between, say, the soundscape one experiences in a given moment from the Platonic ideal soundscape associated with that same place. Feld’s concept of “acoustemology” gets at the inherent sonic potential, the sonic potential energy, of a place, and the term’s focus on culture gets at how humans don’t just contribute sound to an environment; they inherently lend meaning to sound, hence his emphasis on “imagination.”

After the mid-class break we talk through various examples of sound in product design, utilizing the idea of soundscape, soundmarks, and acoustemlogy. We discuss Dr. William E. Lee III, as quoted in a Discover article by Judith Stone, on the role of sound in potato chips. It’s an article I’ve been using ever since I started teaching this course, back in 2012. Dr. Lee says, at one point, “People will move snack food around the mouth to maximize noise. Kids have what I call noise wars — they crunch in such a way that they’re throwing noise at each other.”

I show a brief promotional video from the car manufacturer Audi talking about the role of sound in electric vehicles. We discuss the notion of sonic “skeuomorphism.” A skeuomorph is a design element that in its initial appearance had some functional role, and is later retained for largely decorative purposes. The term is often discussed in regard to Apple’s OS design prior to Jonathan Ive’s promotion from hardware design to also lead software design. We talk about the original shutter sound of a camera, later employed on digital cameras, and connect those sounds to the engine noises being produced by companies such as Audi for their electric vehicles.

As Michael B. Sapherstein wrote in a 1998 analysis of Harley Davidson, as of that year of the nearly three quarters of a million trademarks enforced in the United States by the Patent and Trademark Office, the number related to sounds was … just 23. We discuss a suit against Honda by Harley regarding its engine noise, and Harley’s failed attempt to trademark that noise. And, among other examples, I bring up, by way of contrast, a sound not directly resulting from engineering, but one added consciously to a product: the startup sound of an operating system. Brian Eno developed a startup sound for Windows 95, and he famously was given by Microsoft a list of “about 150 adjectives”that the sound should encompass.

How product design connects to soundscapes, soundmarks, and acoustemology has to do with utilizing those frameworks as a means to consider the environment in which specific products are experienced, consumed, active.

One way I find helpful to consider such a thing is to draw a four-quadrant grid with “explicit” and “implicit” on one axis, and “product” and “category” on the perpendicular axis. We explore what sounds are “explicitly” associated with a given product, such as the “Snap, Crackle, and Pop” of Rice Krispies, and the engine noise of a Harley motorcycle, and those sounds that are more “implicit,” such as the lock of a car door or the beep of an external hard drive. One thing we explore is how such “implicit” sounds can become “explicit” through creative executions that tie the product to the sound, such as the click of the Microsoft Surface tablet.

We usually discuss Jacques Tati’s film Playtime at the end of this class, but this week was short due to a student-faculty event.

* Homework

As for homework, for the coming week students write four times in their ongoing sound journals, they propose subjects for in-class presentations, and they develop “brand playlists.” A this point in their sound journals, students are expected to have ceased doing journal entries that are simply lists of sounds, and instead be writing longer entries about fewer sounds — and, importantly, focused not on description as much as on meaning. For their presentation subjects they are instructed as follows: “It should be something personal to you, something important — a hobby, a favorite place you like to visit, a sport you play, etc. In your presentation you will discuss the role of sound in relation to that subject.” And this is the longest of the week’s homework assignments, the development of a “brand playlist”:

“You will develop three in-store “playlists”: sets of pre-recorded songs to be played in retail establishments. Each playlist is to be formatted as follows: (1) the name of the retail brand, (2) a brief slogan (ten words or fewer) summarizing your playlist’s approach, (3) a list of six example songs from the playlist (for each song note the artist, song title, album source, year of release), (4) a summary (approximately 200 words) of the creative approach you are taking and how it aligns with the store’s products, category, and audience — in particular, in some way the playlist should connect to either the implicit or explicit sounds of the given brand.”

Next week: The sound of retail space.

Note: I’ve tried to do these week-by-week updates of the course in the past, and I’m hopeful this time I’ll make it through all 15 weeks. Part of what held me up in the past was adding videos and documents, so this time I’m going to likely bypass that.

This first appeared in the March 3, 2015, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Sound Class, Week 4 of 15: The Jingle

Sounds of brands, ancient markets, news callers, Texaco, Spotify, Brylcreem, homework

20150224-week4

The commercial jingle took a strange turn at the birth of radio. To understand that detour it can help to listen further back, to trace the jingle to the very birth of commerce, long before recorded music — arguably long before recorded history.

The “jingle” is the subject of the fourth week of the course I teach on the role of sound in the media landscape at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. After three weeks spent studying listening, the fourth week is the start of the second arc of the course: “sounds of brands.” This second arc is the longest of the course’s three arcs, and runs through week 10. Each week of the 15-week course my plan is to summarize the previous class session here. Please keep in mind that three hours of lecture and discussion is roughly 25,000 words; this summary is just an outline, in this case less than 10 percent of what occurs in class.

As with the previous two weeks, the structure of this lecture is based around a timeline of sorts. For class meeting two it is “the history of listening,” and for class meeting three (last week) it is “a trajectory of the use of sound in film and (later) television.” This week it is a rough outline of “the history of the jingle.” The outline reads as follows. This is less a timeline than a sequence of talking points in rough chronological order:

ӢӢ the development of the jingle

We start with the definition of the “jingle,” which originates in the 14th century to mean “of imitative origin,” in Dutch and German. In time this comes to be a verb, and to expand in the mid-1600s to be a “catchy array of words in prose or verse.” Its employment as a “song in an advertisement” dates from around 1930, fairly recently. But if the usage is recent, the role of the jingle is not.

Ӣ from the Moroccan market to newsboys

We start with the purpose and benefit of the jingle. As early as there were marketplaces there was the need for a product to distinguish itself, for a caller to attract consumers, to get them to visit one stall rather than another. That practice continues to this day in some markets, and had something of a heyday in modern times with the “newsboy,” who could announce bits of the headlines but still make purchase of the paper requisite for getting the full story.

Ӣ song sheets

There’s a received assumption that connects the jingle specifically to a commercial song, a ditty written to sell a product. I talk a bit about popular singers who got their start as jingle writers. But as the word’s definition explains, the “catchy” verse preceded what we have come to think of as a full song — which isn’t to say we had to wait until the rise of radio and recorded music for the jingle to be a proper song. One artifact of interest is the advertising or promotional “song sheet,” as documented by Elizabeth C. Axford and by Timothy D. Taylor, among others. The song sheet, in its day, was a promotional song given as a small gift to consumers, for example when they visited a Studebaker dealership to test-drive a vehicle. The genius, in retrospect, of the song sheet was that it meant people would then return to their homes and played the advertiser’s jingle themselves on the family’s parlor piano. Talk about “viral.” The practice makes the Max Headroom “blipvert” seem like a brute force attack by comparison.

Ӣ Burma Shave

These popular roadside signs (e.g., “Don’t pass cars / on curve or hill / If the cops don’t get you / morticians will / Burma Shave”) didn’t kick in until well into the 20th century, but they serve as a good example of a modern jingle that isn’t truly a song, and also how a jingle can be crafted to suit its environment. The question that lingers over this class meeting is: “What is the Burma Shave of the Internet?”

Ӣ Texaco Star Theatre

The odd detour I mention early on is how at first radio was not a matter of interstitial advertising, as we experience it today, but of sponsored hours. To that end, for many years early in radio one had a positive association with an advertiser because their name was affixed to a regular weekly variety show. Only later on did radio stations stop selling “time” and start selling “audience.” The jingle as we know it may have its roots in the markets of yore, but it only really took shape once brands needed to make the most of a half minute or so of advertising, after the hour-long sponsorship had faded. We may not have solved the riddle that is the “Burma Shave of the Internet,” but we can draw a fairly straight line from the Texaco radio hour, and its ilk, to to modern-day resurgences of the practice, such as “branded playlists” on Spotify.

For this week’s class, the students’ homework included a research and analysis project. The assignment read in part: “Identify a single song that’s been used more than once (three times at least) in different settings to promote different products/services from different companies. Explain the role that the song plays in the varied executions, and how it’s employed differently in each setting.” In class I break them into small groups, of three or four students each, and they compare what they learned in their research. The goal for each group is to develop a list of best practices they agree upon for employing a pre-existing song to represent an organization, brand, or service. We then collate these best practices again when the whole class reconvenes to sort out what the individual groups decided.

I usually show a few archaic commercials at this point. We already marveled at some Kit Kat candy commercials in recent weeks. We now watch an animated Chiquita TV commercial that explains how you don’t refrigerate bananas, and compare it with how, say, early iPod commercials had to teach the viewer how to use the (then) new touch interface. We also watch an early Brycreem commercial, and I investigate how the melody is quite expertly insinuated into the narrative before it appears explicitly as a jingle. The close reading of the Brylcreem requires several repeat viewings and a lot of pausing, as we did the week prior with a scene from the David Fincher version of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Ӣ Homework

For the next week they have three assignments. They are to write in their sound journals, as always four times in the given week. They are to read an interview with former KCRW DJ Nic Harcourt, to learn about the role of the music supervisor. And they are to watch Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Playtime and write about the role of sound in its narrative. I warn them that if they found The Conversation, which we watched for homework two weeks prior, to be a little slow, that Playtime is about half its speed.

Note: I’ve tried to do these week-by-week updates of the course in the past, and I’m hopeful this time I’ll make it through all 15 weeks. Part of what held me up in the past was adding videos and documents, so this time I’m going to likely bypass that.

This first appeared in the February 24, 2015, edition of the free Disquiet email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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