When a Classically-Trained Musician Met the World of Sonic Branding
by Chihiro Shibayama, Account Executive, West Coast
March 9th, 2020 marked the last day of my working musician’s life as I knew it. COVID had arrived. By that weekend, every event and every paycheck that came with it simply disappeared. Gone were the planned choir concerts at Carnegie Hall, a Broadway performance of West Side Story, a touring through the Mid-West with a string ensemble. For a professional freelance musician like myself, this was indescribably devastating. After 18 years of performing experience, countless hours of practice, and two degrees from Juilliard, I suddenly felt useless. I was lost.
If I learned anything from being an immigrant and a New Yorker, it’s resilience and toughness. It was just not in my nature to do nothing, to wait it out until live music came back. So for the first time in my life, I looked for a job off-stage in the music industry.
March 1st, 2021. I am in a Zoom meeting “surrounded” by a group of happy, driven, and creative people. I’ve just landed my first full-time job, as an Account Executive at Made Music Studio, and put myself in the center of an alternative universe of music called “sonic branding.”
I had spent much of my life in music in concert halls and orchestra pits, behind the instruments and for rows of audiences. Sonic branding was new to me.
When I first walked through the Zoom doors of Made Music, I didn’t know much about the music world outside of classical music. I had spent much of my life in music in concert halls and orchestra pits, behind the instruments and for rows of audiences. Sonic branding was new to me. I knew and felt the importance of music in my own life but had never considered it as a branding tool. I spent my first few weeks in my new position watching sizzle reels, reading materials, talking to other members of the Made Music team, really trying to understand the “what” and “how” of sonic branding. Phrases like “sonic logo” and “sonic identity” would soon enter my vocabulary. But I was still left with the question of “why.” Why was it valuable? Why did it exist? I got closer to these answers through some words from our founder, Joel Beckerman.
In Joel’s book, The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy, he writes about how we react faster to sound than all other sensual stimuli, including touch, sight, taste, and smell. He says, “Boom moments occur when businesses and people use sounds to rope in a lot of other senses, spark memories, tell rich stories with incredible efficiency, and, most important, elicit feelings.”
I thought back to the research and learning I was doing those first few weeks of the job, the videos I watched, the emotions I felt, how starstruck I was learning this was the creative team behind the iconic IMAX theme. Made Music Studio was everywhere — the AT&T ringtone, HBO’s Feature Presentation, The Superbowl score on NBC, the sound of Hulu, Wondery and beyond. (The MMS phrase “you may not know us, but you’ve heard us” was exactly right.)
I had been feeling and responding to these branded sounds every day without realizing it, until now. Yes, our work was rooted in custom-creating music for brands, but the real value is the power of sound to impact and influence people — triggering emotions and creating memories. As a musician, that was something I understood.
Almost everyone has at least one piece of music that elicits emotions for them. For me, it’s Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 “Romantic” theme. When I hear it, I am transported. It takes me back 20 years to Interlochen Arts Camp in Northern Michigan. I remember everything about it, all the friends I made, ice cream I bought, concerts I attended and performed, the cabin I slept in with 16 other girls…memories pour out effortlessly. The journey to being a sonic branding expert was not so far from my reach after all.
It’s now been decades since that arts camp in Michigan, and remembering the experience makes me even more eager to get back to performing and teaching once the world opens up again. I may have taken a detour from the professional world of performing music, but I have discovered a dynamic new one amidst a whirlwind of sonic logos and new faces. It’s a world that uses music to power our experiences, trigger our memories and create lasting emotional connections. This is something, besides a set of drums, that I can get behind.