Audio Branding

I have friends in the health professions, doctors and dentists, who tell me that when they go to parties, for example, people insist on describing symptoms or procedures in unwarranted detail, expecting opinion, diagnosis and even prescription in return. In other words, their job attracts so much attention that they can never leave it behind. Now, it's fairly rare for me to be expected to write a symphony in response to an anecdote at a party, but I do have a similar problem to my medical friends.

Being a composer is a fairly unusual job, but most people I know now understand what I do: the novelty of having such a weirdo in their circle of friends has worn off and it's widely accepted that I just laze around all day plagiarising real musicians while decent people are out working their bits off and contributing something of value to society. But these days it's not the composing that perturbs people. It's the audio branding.

"What is audio branding?" asks nearly everyone, occasionally bothering to fake a tone of genuine interest.

Well first, a bit of relevant background: I've been lucky enough to write music for adverts (Nike probably being the most famous brand to date) as well as a great deal of music for stage and screen. This requires a sensitivity to the emotions of the piece, the music serving both to enhance and communicate mood. I also did some post-grad study into music and the psyche, where I was equally lucky to have inspiring and talented lecturers. Another important factor was a commission I had some years ago from a multinational company to undertake further research into the well known 'Mozart Effect' and, if possible, to write background music that would enhance the performance of employees both on the factory floor and in their award-winning, in-house 'corporate college'. All of these circumstances combined to create a strong foundation from which I could proceed with some interesting work - currently as pre-doctoral research - into aspects of what we might as well call 'applied music'.

This is not a new concept. Music has been used for centuries to control, manipulate or influence: to march soldiers into mortal peril, to scare the living daylights out of film audiences (Jerry Goldsmith's amazing score for 'The Omen' did it for me), or to make them cry (Harry Gregson-Williams' beautiful score for 'Veronica Guerin'), for torture (the FBI at Waco, the US army at Panama City in 1989), every advertising jingle ever written, the hooks in a pop song, even for civil engineering if you want to include demolishing the walls of Jericho... I could go on.

Currently, my research has two main strands: 1) audio in the retail environment and 2) the 'branding' of a product or company. Now I'm not going to go into too much detail here, partly because of time constraints and partly because, in some respects, I'm still at a data gathering stage, so what results I have aren't really ready for public consumption. But here are some initial conclusions that I find fascinating, albeit with the caveat that they might yet prove to be wrong...

Music can certainly influence a customer's purchasing decisions while shopping. In one well-known experiment, repeated many times, sales of wine were substantially affected by the playing of French and German music on alternate days. But when it comes to the 'branding' of companies or products, one needs to be cautious. Some results suggest that the five note 'Intel Inside' theme is more strongly associated with Microsoft than with Intel. Similarly, the ubiquitous 'Nokia theme tune' (actually 'Gran Vals' by Francisco Tárrega, written in 1902) is associated by many, not with Nokia, but with the more generic category 'Ringtones'. And what sounds do people prefer? Some results suggest that people prefer sounds that originated organically, rather than being totally synthesised, e.g. the click of a button seems somehow 'nicer' if it originates from, say, a human mouth or hand (tongue or finger click) before being processed. Again, I could go on, but some of my research is incomplete and, anyway, I don't want to spoil what might eventually be my doctoral thesis!

So if, at a party, someone should enquire "What is Audio Branding?" I would reply: "At the moment, it's an inexact science but it's nonetheless a field that offers tremendous potential for advertisers and composers alike. Now, where's the bar?"