Future Sounds: Sonic Branding for New Technology

by Alex CouttsSVP, Head of Experience


Every day, from the moment we wake up, we are immersed in sound. The alarm that jolts you awake, the screech of vehicles in traffic, the frequent dings of alerts, the subtle hum of an air conditioner – an endless underscore that we often tune out. But these sounds affect our state of mind, our behavior and our ultimate perception of experiences.

Now think of all the new technologies that have emerged over the past few years — entirely new products that have become or will soon become commonplace. Electric vehicles, autonomous cars, voice assistants and a wide array of connected devices have all started introducing new sounds (and new personalities) into the soundtrack of our lives.

As technology continues to evolve past a reliance on screens and visuals it’s crucial that these new products and experiences better consider sound from their inception. For when sound design is considered early in the development of a new product or experience, it can make that experience feel both richer and simpler.

The subconscious emotional appeal of a sound is 86% correlated with our conscious desire to engage with or avoid an experience.

– Research provided by Sentient Decision Science

We all inherently know the emotional power music has on us – think of how the right song at the right time can transport you back to certain time or place – but the superpowers of sound are routinely glossed over. Sound is the first sense humans respond to – about 30 milliseconds faster than reaction times to visuals. And when used effectively, MMS research has proven sound to even shorten product learning curves by 28%.

When sound is not a priority, the adverse effects on an end experience can be both immediate and real. Unpleasant noise has actually been linked with mental and physical stress, including anxiety, heightened blood pressure, and heart rate.

We can all point to common experiences where sound detracts from an experience: the city subway, the loud buzzer on your washing machine, or that incessant beeping reminder to put your seatbelt on in your car. These types of grating, even unnecessary, sounds — sometimes called sonic trash — add no value to an interaction and can cause people to tune out or avoid an experience completely.

Over the years, Made Music Studio has striven to unlock how the principles of sonic branding can be a more consciously designed tool that product and industrial designers can use in support of the experiences they’re creating. Through our research with Sentient Decision Science, we discovered that the subconscious emotional appeal of a sound is 86% correlated with our conscious desire to engage with or avoid an experience. Meaning any use of sound – strategic or not – will be affecting the actions of your users.

So with that in mind, how does one begin to use these powers for good?

Defining personality through sound

As soon as you put sound into a machine, it has an inherent personality. Over the years, Hollywood has infused machines and robots with all kinds of personalities, which can even be a starting point for sound design. Are you looking to create something cute and cuddly like BB-8, or cold and efficient like HAL 9000?

Especially for new technologies, sound can be used to humanize interactions and personify digital and physical experiences.


Conveying the right message

But just as important as the personality of your sounds, is what they’re trying to convey. Consider things like gesture and tonality and begin to ask: what kind of sounds might connote success? What kind of sounds might connote failure, or to try again?

In this next era of products and experiences, the right sound in the right moment will be able to convey a message in a way that’s quicker, more intuitive, and most importantly: more emotionally engaging. Consider it a form of Sonic Branding.

The sound of safety

As emerging technologies are introduced to consumers, sound can also be leveraged to effectively convey safety – be it with thoughtfully designed alerts or alarms, or more emotional (even musical) cues to create a sense of comfort and calm to instill trust.

In some of our past sonic branding and product design work at Made Music Studio, a common inspiration point is the sonic cues that support the Tokyo metro experience. What initially sounds like a cute jingle specific to your home station, over time becomes an almost subconscious cue that you’ve safely arrived home. With one sound an expansive, complex transportation system can imbue the experience with personality all while being more intuitive and accessible.

For this reason, always consider the urgency of your message and the preferred action by the user. Ask yourself what relationship you want your experience it to have with its user, and how exactly users should feel when using it? Not every alert needs to be alarming.

Instead of leaving sound as an afterthought, product designers have an opportunity to use sound as an integral component in defining this next era of experiences. The risks of poorly used sound – damaging consumer loyalty and engagement – also point to the opportunity impactful sound can have on the end experience and design.

When included in the broader design process, sound can feel one with its environment. You don’t notice this kind of sonic branding as a separate component — you notice its impact only as integral to the core experience.

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