We’ve all heard sound logos in advertising. The Intel sound logo is probably the most widely recognized one. A sound logo is a sonic signature used to associate a brand with a listener. Successful sound logos have the primary characteristics of being unique, memorable, and fitting. When a sound logo plays, a brand lives.
Successful sound logos have the primary characteristics of being unique, memorable, and fitting.When it comes to brand reinforcement and sound logos, three things matter: how effective is the logo, how do you lower the bar to exposure of the logo, and how do you lengthen its lifetime? Assuming that you have an effective logo, then anything that can increase logo exposure or lengthen its lifetime works in favor of brand reinforcement.
In this post, we’ll examine the question of lengthening a logo’s lifetime. As a sound logo designer, this is something I’ve thought a lot about, and I’ve had to explain to clients on occasions. So I’ve decided to share my pitch here in the hope you may find it useful in your own design work.
Let’s start with the question of how we recognize a logo.
Sound logo identity recognition
Every human being has a unique identity. When you meet your friend, you recognize their identity through a network of sensory inputs, perception centers, and memory cells. It’s what I call the identity match point. As you receive sensory input and process it through perception, a point is reached at which you generate an identity match in your memory. At the moment recognition occurs, your experience of the world becomes contextualized within the memories you have of that person and your relationship to them.
Sound logo identity recognition works in a similar way. Perception centers process sensory input from your ears and search for an identity match in memory. If the identity match point is reached, recognition occurs and the listener experiences associations they have made with the sound logo. If the designer has done their job, these associations are positive, and the brand becomes positively charged with the listener. The key is that recognition occurs based on a unique identity being pattern matched with a memory. For a sound logo to be effective, it must be recognizable. Therefore identity is crucial.
Sound logo DNA and replication
In human beings, our unique identity is the result of gene coding in DNA carried in the cells of our bodies. For a human cell to replicate, the DNA in the cell must duplicate itself so that the new cell gets a copy. DNA replication makes the continued existence of the body possible. DNA replication is a critical part of longevity.
When a designer creates a sound logo, the sound logo’s DNA is encoded in sine waves occupying the pitch (note), timbre (sound), amplitude (volume), and duration (time) domains. If a sound logo is to have longevity, it is critical that the sound designer be able to replicate it such that the listener experiences the identity match point, even when the new copy may have different pitch, timbre, amplitude, or duration values.
Let’s ground this in an example. Imagine a young student who is learning to play the piano. Quite by accident she plays three notes — G, E, and C — that just happen to be the three notes of the NBC sound logo. Let’s just say that the generation of the notes on the piano alone is enough for the child to reach the identity match point. She recognizes NBC’s sound logo and immediately accesses her associations with it. The brand comes alive. Now imagine her brother picks up an oboe and plays the same three notes and again the identity match point is reached. Once more NBC’s brand lives. What just happened? The sound logo was replicated from piano to oboe. Even though both instruments have completely different timbres, the unique identity of the sound logo was preserved such that the identity match point was achieved in both cases. In fact, you could whistle the sound logo, or have a 100 piece orchestra play the notes, and the sound logo will still be recognizable. This means that the bar for reaching the identity match point with NBC’s sound logo is low. This gives the sound logo enormous longevity through timbre reinvention over time.
To figure out why NBC’s sound logo translates to just about any instrument, we need to take a closer look at what I call the the pitch-timbre continuum.
The pitch-timbre continuum
As I mentioned earlier, a sound logo has four domains: pitch, timbre, amplitude, and duration. We’ll ignore the amplitude and duration domains as their effect on replication is relatively minor. If I were to play the Intel sound logo very loudly, and then very quietly you’d still recognize it as the same sound logo. Similarly, if I were to slow it down by 50% and then speed it up by 50% there’s also a good chance you would still recognize it. So instead, we’ll focus on the two remaining domains: pitch and timbre.
The ability to successfully replicate a sound logo is predicated on which domain — pitch or timbre — the sound logo DNA predominantly lives in.In my opinion, the unique identity of a sound logo is chiefly determined by sonic information in its pitch and timbre domains. But the crucial discovery I made as I studied examples of great sound logos was that the ability to successfully replicate a sound logo is predicated on which domain — pitch or timbre — the sound logo DNA predominantly lives in. Specifically, the more the DNA resides in the pitch domain, the easier it is to replicate the logo through timbre explorations, and hence the greater the ability to replicate and reinvent the logo over time. The more the DNA resides in the timbre domain, the more difficult it is to explore timbres without losing identity match point, and hence a more restricted ability to replicate and reinvent over time.
We can visualize this by considering a continuum with the left extreme being pitch and the right extreme being timbre. If a sound logo lives to the left of the continuum, it will have more longevity through replication. If it lives to the right of the continuum, it’s less likely to have longevity through replication.
There are actually two aspects of the pitch domain: absolute frequency, and relative interval. The note A below middle C has an absolute pitch defined at a frequency of 440Hz. Although the NBC sound logo is absolute pitch G, E, C, it could be transposed down a whole step to F, D, Bb and retain its identity. That’s because DNA in the pitch domain is always associated with the relative interval map for a sound logo. In the case of the NBC logo, the relative interval map is V2, III2, I1. If you recognize a sound logo based on melody, it is never the case that you fail to recognize the sound logo if it is transposed.
Note: The implication of this is that sound logos can be transposed to match a music bed and still retain DNA in the pitch domain. However, it’s my opinion that while a client could have a sound logo in several keys, melody-based sound logos tend to sound best in one or two keys, and that those keys should be adhered to as much as possible.
Let’s cement our understanding with three examples.
- NBC: pitch domain. When NBC’s sound logo was introduced many years ago, it had 3 pitches, G, E, and C, and employed a very simple electronic chime timbre. The DNA of the sound logo, that unique identity we know so well, had very little to do with the electronic chime timbre. It was probably cool back then but that wasn’t really the hook. The magic is in the notes. They make up a melody, and that melody is instantly memorable. And as I stated right at the top, a great sound logo must be memorable. Because the DNA is in the pitch domain, NBC has been able to refine and tweak that sound logo over and over without ever running the risk of blowing the identity match point.
- Intel: pitch and timbre domains. The Intel sound logo, like most sound logos, has its DNA residing in both pitch and timbre domains. It consists of five distinct pitches, and employs characteristic timbres. Because the logo DNA has been shifted across both domains and sits in the middle of the pitch-timbre continuum, the identity match point bar has been raised. If you were to play the five notes on an oboe or piano it’s not clear that the listener would experience an identity match point such as they would with the NBC logo. In addition, certain timbral elements are mandatory. In particular, the opening chime is instantly recognizable, and cues the listener immediately to the fact that it is the Intel logo. So when Intel have updated the logo, they have left the characteristics of that chime intact, and explored timbre variations for the rest of the logo.
- Apple (Mac startup): timbre domain. Apple’s Mac startup sound, while not technically a marquee sound logo, has nevertheless become perhaps the single most iconic sound in their portfolio. This sound is all about the timbre, which I would argue makes it the most difficult sound logo to refine over time. If you click on the link above and listen to all those startup chimes, it’s clear they don’t retain any identity match across revisions. In recent years, Apple have settled on “the good one”, as Steve Jobs called it, and made minor modifications to it. These slight variations obviously retain identity match. But it is difficult to stray far from that characteristic timbre without losing identity match. Which makes my point that a logo in the timbre domain is very difficult to modify over time, and therefore places a limitation on the longevity of the logo.
Why reinvent a logo?
However a brand shifts with the times, so the logo should continue to fit it.At the beginning of this post I said successful sound logos have the primary characteristics of being unique, memorable, and fitting. So you may well wonder, why reinvent something iconic like the Mac startup sound? After all, it’s timbre is precisely what makes it unique and memorable. That’s true. But the way we dressed in the 20s made sense then, but not so much now. And car designs from the 50s and 60s, while unique and memorable then, aren’t popular now. Why? Taste. Styles come and go, driven by, among other things, advertising. And if a logo has a sound reminiscent of a bygone age, then that might not be what the client wants for their brand. That’s why I said successful sound logos have the primary characteristics of being unique, memorable, and fitting. However a brand shifts with the times, so the logo should continue to fit it. A pitch is forever, but a timbre may not be so…
Ok, let’s wrap it up with an exercise. Here’s a playlist of some very recognizable sound logos. See if you can figure out where each one fits on the pitch-timbre continuum!
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