How Tiny Music Can Create Big Connections

by Ben Arons, VP, Director of Music Technology


Tiny Music: The navigational sound that is our co-pilot on the journey through digital experiences.

Bridging the Digital and the Real

We live in a world where we are required more and more to interact with the digital. The digital is all around us, for better or worse. In this world, our interaction with products, services, and the companies that make them has become bi-directional. We are no longer passive consumers, but active participants in the stories these companies are telling. Because humans communicate primarily through sound, it is the key to intuitive and emotional engagement in these experiences. It must be carefully crafted and curated so as not to annoy or overwhelm, but provide emotional connection and intuitive direction.

Digital experiences in one form or another have been around since the first video game in the late 1950s (that’s right, it was before Pong!). Since then, video games have largely led the charge in interactive digital sound experiences… until recently. The rapid proliferation of smart phones and service apps has created a new captive audience: the private, personal “audience of one”. As the technology has developed, digital footprints have also exploded on site at stores, museums, shopping, malls, interactive call centers, restaurants, public transportation hubs and stations, the list goes on.

So What?

The curmudgeon at this point says: “Stop! Please, please make sure that none of these things make noise. There’s too much sonic trash around as it is.” I agree. They should not make “noise,” but does that mean they shouldn’t make sound? And if, as makers of this stuff, we program them to make sound, why not have it be musical sound while we’re at it? I’m not suggesting that if you walk up and touch one of Control Group’s Wayfinding Kiosks it should play a music track (buskers do that already, and better, I might add). No. I’m talking about tiny music, or navigation sounds (okay, and sonic logos too).

Beyond Bleeps and Bloops!

If a pop song is a paragraph, a navigation sound is a word and a sonic logo is a short sentence. Navigation sounds, or as we at Made Music Studio call them, Brand Navigation SoundsTM, are those little markers that help lead your way through an app, a digital touch screen experience, or even a public space with potentially no screens at all. But “they’re just little bleeps and bloops” you say? No way! In order for the sound to have impact, function, emotional connection, and not be annoying, they need to be carefully constructed. Every little sound, whether it’s a hefty three seconds long, or simply two-hundred milliseconds, is made with the same elements that make up a piece of music: pitch, rhythm/tempo, timbre, and envelope.

You’ve Got Voicemail

It would require a treatise-length piece to explain in detail how all of this works. Actually, this is interesting in and of itself because it’s understandably hard to believe that such a small amount of sound can have this many components, but they do! The iconic iPhone “Tri-Tone” voicemail alert is a perfect example of tiny music. Even if you don’t have an iOS device, you’ve probably heard this sound out in the world. Here it is, in case you need a refresher:

First I want to clear up one thing: Neither of the two musical intervals in this sound are a tritone (oft-considered one of the most dissonant and tension-filled intervals in Western music). It’s made up of a perfect fifth and perfect fourth, arguably the least dissonant intervals in Western music. But I digress. What makes this sound so effective is the purity of timbre, simple harmonic consonance, and a succinct, yet slightly imperfect (slightly swung), rhythm (approximately three 16th notes at 110 beats per minute). When making this sound, it would have been easy to simply string together three distinct notes, but they chose to let them overlap, as if played organically by human hands on an instrument. If you listen carefully, you can hear the first and second note sustain into the last one. It’s entirely possible that it was played, actually. Sometimes when making these we have to zoom in and manhandle each note or beat and in doing so things can get mechanical sounding very quickly. Depending on the character of the brand voice, we must painstakingly re-create that imperfect quality that so effectively bridges the gap between the needs of the user and the interface.

The Sum of Its Parts

Another very important factor in the making of tiny music is how multiple sounds fit together in the experience as a whole. Timbres should be related, that is, cut from the same cloth so to speak. The relationship between pitched elements is really important, just as it is within one sound in the example above. Consider another iOS example (Can you tell I’m an Apple guy? Yep.): the “ready tone” you hear when activating Siri.

It’s a quick two-beat tone (rea-dy). If you let go without any input or if Siri can’t understand you, the same sound plays, but down a fourth. Hearing this drop sounds like a nice “I didn’t understand”. I have no data to back this up, but hearing a drop in pitch sounds like “nope” to us Western humans anyway, because it mimics the relative pitch direction our voices take when we respond in the negative. Remind me to find a linguist and have some research done… Anyway, in this case, a drop via a consonant interval (the perfect fourth) makes the “nope” less annoying and more related. It’s the answer to a question posed by the ready tone instead of an unrelated error. The experience has a unified feel.

Clarity in Execution

Just like any piece of music, it’s important that navigation sounds and logos speak clearly over the speakers they were created to play through. The sound in question spans an entire octave so it speaks clearly and loudly over a variety of small speakers (e.g. iPads and iPhones). Because of its bright quality and high register, it perks the ear immediately. In order to create this bright quality it’s important to first pick timbres/textures that are bright in character. However, if you can’t do that, it’s possible to bring out some of the upper harmonics from a slightly darker sound as well using some studio tricks. One that works well for us is to layer, at a very low volume, the same sound pitched up an octave or two. It’s not loud enough to hear as a separate element, but it gets your attention quite nicely.

So there you have it, a little window into the not-so-humble world of sound in under three seconds. The amount of words it takes to describe it is, unfortunately, inversely proportional.

Hear an example of the “Tri-Tone” iOS notification separated into its three distinct notes:

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