Sight and Sound

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Specific sounds are often tied to specific objects. The sight of a shark conjures the theme from Jaws; “O Canada” brings to mind a hockey rink; Louis Armstrong’s raspy voice evokes photographs of the famous musician. These links are typically taken for granted until they are broken, either for humorous effect, as when a dinosaur crows like a rooster in the slapstick comedy Caveman, or with jarring results, as when the visage of a radio personality does not match the face we imagined. To borrow a term from semiotics, associated sights and sounds serve as indexes for one another: the sonic recalls the visual; the visual recalls the sonic.

The question is how these indelible connections come about. According to Joel Beckerman, a composer and author of Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy, the union exits prior to the association itself. Certain sounds and images just go together. This is why, he argues, the startup sound of Apple computers and the sizzling fajita platters at Chili’s work so well, while high-decibel biodegradable SunChip bags and the use of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” to sell Wrangler jeans were abject failures.

Beckerman’s thesis has its limits. Sure, the faux pas could have been avoided. Nobody wants to be overwhelmed by the amplified crackling of a bag of chips, and John Fogerty (who does not own the rights to CCR’s songs) was peeved that his anti-war anthem was used in an ad with patriotic overtones. However, the sounds that do work are less clear-cut. As long as there is a general sentimental convergence between sights and sounds, there is the possibility of creating a lasting link.

The key, it seems, is repetition. It should be remembered that the melody borrowed for the Star-Spangled Banner began as the official song of the Anacreontic Society, a drinking club of amateur musicians in eighteenth-century London. If Frederick Scott Key’s poem had been set to another accommodating melody, it may have caught on just as well. Likewise, if the iconic score to Star Wars were completely different when the film debuted in 1977, that score would have also become iconic. It is our repeated exposure to the movie, coupled with leitmotifs in the score, that makes the music and images synonymous. In the world of branding, the incessantness of ringtones and commercial jingles fuses them with the objects they promote. The same can be said for almost any deep relationship of image and sound.

To be fair, Beckerman’s work (including his book) is geared toward advertising executives and marketing firms, and his company, Man Made Music, offers sonic branding services. In short, he has something to sell. But a more cautious assessment shows that repetition is the primary mechanism. The connection feels natural because it has been forged through experience.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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