There are, discovers Alix Norman, sounds that transcend language and culture. One Cypriot company is using them as ‘auditory rewards’
Why do monks go ‘Om’? No, it’s not a joke. It’s a very real question. The sound of water calms us. Sirens disturb us. Cheering uplifts us. Regardless of the language we speak or the culture in which we were raised, there are certain sounds that have a universal effect on our minds and bodies. But why does this happen? And, more importantly, how can it be used to our advantage?
Jacob Papageorgiou has the answer. A Nicosia-based techie and accomplished musician, 30-year-old Jacob is the brains behind Mojo Design – a web design company that’s amongst the first in the world to pioneer ‘sound branding’.
“Until now, branding has focused on a company’s visual identity,” he explains. “It’s been about the colours, logos and images – that’s the stuff we associate with, say Coca Cola or MacDonald’s. But as technology evolves, we’re now able to up the ante and appeal not just to the visual aspect, but also to the auditory. In effect, we’re doing for clients what John Williams did for Star Wars, or what Vangelis did for Chariots of Fire – but rather than creating entire pieces of music, we’re creating instantly recognisable sounds for use on websites, videos, podcasts, apps and games…”
While sounds have long signified certain online actions (think of the original ‘thunk’ that denoted an incorrect command on Windows, or the major third used by Mac on start up to indicate success), Jacob and team are taking things one step further. They’re not creating melodies, jingles, or even short musical phrases – they’re using simple sounds to evoke the positive emotions that subconsciously reward us.
“Commonly used in advertising, product sound design and branding touchpoints, this ‘sound branding’ is a powerful tool,” Jacob reveals. “Used correctly, distinctive sound effects create an emotional connection with the product or service – they become intertwined with the brand itself, build brand recognition and recall, and enhance user experience.
“For example, working on an international education platform, we introduced the pleasant sound of a drop of water falling into a cup on the accomplishment of a course, and the chirping of birds for the completion of an exam,” Jacob reveals. “Our brains subconsciously associate these sounds with certain emotions – calm and happiness for the former; change and accomplishment for the latter.”
Jacob and team have used this principle of ‘sound rewards’ in their work on websites for FIFA, Vogue, PlayStation and Adidas – international brands who are looking for that added extra to set them above the competition. From the sound of a brief cheering crowd when you score a goal or celebrate a win, to the sound of a hot water drop as it enters an ice-cold beverage that mimics the sound of stillness, “these little sounds act as auditory rewards. They transcend culture and speak directly to the language of emotion.”
Jacob himself is no stranger to the semantics of sound. In fact, he’s made a particular study of its effects within music. “Think of a minor scale,” he explains. “It creates a musical tension that remains unresolved; it’s a sound that’s universally acknowledged to build suspense and uncertainty in the listener. Most ambulance sirens operate on a minor third, a frequency that tells our bodies and minds to be alert. And the sirens that mark the invasion here in Cyprus run up the minor octave, a haunting cadence that alerts the primitive brain. Meanwhile, major thirds such as those used in funk and gospel evoke a sense of achievement, of victory.”
The right sounds speak directly to almost all areas of the brain: to the amygdala, the seat of emotions; to the hippocampus, where memories are formed and stored; to the prefrontal cortex, which regulates decision-making; and to the nucleus accumbens, which rewards us with dopamine when we listen to a pleasurable sound.
“On the surface, sound branding is an interplay of music and technology,” says Jacob. “But at its core, this discipline is all about emotion. Laughter is universal – a positive sound that’s recognised across every culture. So are the more negative sounds of crying and screaming that all people, regardless of language, use to express fear, pain or sadness. Basic emotions and needs are shared by all humans, irrespective of cultural or linguistic background – and that’s what we’re tapping into in the new field of sound branding.”
That’s not to say it’s easy. “Designing sounds that have universal appeal involves a host of what we consider ‘musical’ aspects,” says Jacob. “Different pitches calm down or wake up our brains. Varying frequencies can influence the brain’s electrical activity. And rhythm can variously promote relaxation, stimulate cognitive function, or clear our minds, depending on what we need. But it’s technology that makes it all possible…”
On any given day, you might find Jacob and team out in the park recording birds, capturing the sounds of cityscapes, or even ripping paper to emulate the sounds of a ball hitting the back of a net. And then it’s hours more at the computer, perfecting the exact frequency, pitch and rhythm that will evoke the emotional response a brand requires. The result is then added to the website, the video or visual element – perhaps to a specific button, or as an opening or closing sound. And every time a user hears that sound, it subconsciously creates a positive vibration, a rewarding emotion.
“And that,” he concludes, “is exactly why monks go ‘Om’! It’s a reward. High frequency sounds such as ‘Ee’ or ‘Aa’’ have been proven to stimulate the body and mind. But low frequency sounds like ‘Om’ send calming vibrations through your body. In fact,” he concludes, “‘Om’ is believed to resonate almost perfectly with the body’s natural frequency, creating incredibly soothing vibes. We’ve actually used this exact frequency in a number of our projects, and I must say, everyone in the office displayed an almost monk-like calm for the duration!”