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Page last updated at 10:32 GMT, Monday, 21 June 2010 11:32 UK

Sonic branding: An earworm to your pocket

Woman with fingers in her ears

They may sound like mere jingles and ditties, but so-called "sonic branding" is big business indeed. How do advertisers capture your soul with just five musical notes?

Every day, trilling away innocuously in the background, dozens of tiny pieces of music are busy burrowing deep inside our psyche.

To the untrained ear they might sound unremarkable, even friendly - but drop your guard and you could fall under their spell.

Everyone recognises visual branding such as logos, and the aural equivalents are equally pervasive.

Nokia's ringtone, Intel's four-note bongs, McDonalds' "I'm lovin' it" refrain - all masterpieces of sonic branding, the genetically modified, 21st Century offspring of the jingle.

Tag Me Amadeus, presented by Sue Perkins, explores the mysterious art of sonic branding
Or listen again via iPlayer

Nor are they restricted to adverts. They can be found everywhere - TV, film, radio - each one designed specifically to manipulate our emotions.

And a multi-million pound industry has grown up around them, with companies eager to capture the values and emotions associated with a product and pipe them directly into your mind.

And for all their brevity and simplicity, the phenomenon draws on the principles of such composers as Richard Wagner and John Williams as well as the dark arts more commonly associated with Mad Men's Don Draper.

Daniel Jackson is managing director of Cutting Edge Commercial, a consultancy providing sonic branding for the likes of Disney, McDonald's and Mercedes.

As he explains, distilling a multi-million dollar brand into a few seconds of sound is a process that can take months.

For him, sonic branding is about building a relationship between the product and its target market through the latter's ears, fulfilling the role that a national anthem plays to a country or a hymn plays to a religion.

"All brands make a noise somewhere, whether it's in a shop, on a TV commercial or through a telephone," he says. "Sonic branding is managing that sound, making sure that it's positive.

"The Germans call these things ohrwurms or earworms - little bits of melody, little bits of sound that can worm their way into your ears and lodge themselves in your brain.

"We all do sonically brand ourselves, for example, through our mobile telephones - so most of us will select a ringtone, and like it or not, that ringtone will in some way reflect our personality."

So how does this actually work in practice?

His colleague Elisa Harris says the task of the sonic brander is about taking a word or concept - "wholesome", say, or "freshness" - and translating it into sound.

Smash advert
For mash get... that jingle out of your head, if you can

"Very often we try to hark back to pieces of the past, too see where there are associative sounds like hunting horns," she says.

"It's rare that we get a word or a value that we can't put a piece of music to."

The most famous sonic brand of them all is Intel's "bongs" four notes which were composed in 1994 and have been heard more than a billion times since. The tune came to composer Walter Werzowa after a weekend of head-scratching.

"I was looking at the [brief] again and saw 'Intel inside'," says Werzowa of the tune's inspiration. "And when you say it it has a rhythm to it, this little melody, the fourth and the fifth. I have to say I think I got quite lucky on that one."

The predecessor of sonic branding was the jingle, seemingly trivial ditties which became indelibly associated with their product - think of such effective campaigns as For Mash Get Smash and Do the Shake and Vac.

Mr Jackson believes the modern jingle was born in New York in 1882, when the makers of a pest control product called Rough on Rats commissioned sheet music to promote their miracle cure.

The Ring(tone) Cycle

Its lyrics may not adhere to modern advertising conventions ("Rats, rats, Rough on Rats / Hang your dogs and hang your cats / We give a plan for every man / To clear his house with Rough on Rats") but its legacy can hardly be disputed.

Nonetheless, Prof John Deathridge, a musicologist at King's College London, believes that sonic branding has an earlier, and yet more highbrow provenance.

Prof Deathridge notes that composer Richard Wagner was the first to truly popularise the power of the miniature musical motif, using more than 100 of them during his vast operatic Ring Cycle to identify characters, plots and objects.

These tiny themes, which became known as leitmotifs, were, Prof Deathridge believes, truly seminal - and the advertising industry may owe more than it realises to the Ring Cycle.

Ricahrd Wagner
Irritated by jingles? Blame Wagner

"It changed the face of opera, if not music as a whole because a lot of composers wanted their music to mean something in a public sense," he adds, emphasising the debt owed to it by branders: "The principle is basically the same."

Of course, it was not only advertising that has drawn on the device of the leitmotif. Film music expert Mark Doran points to films such as The Magnificent Seven - in which the soundtrack provides characters with their own musical themes - and Jaws as examples of very simple refrains having a powerful impact on emotion and mood.

"It's worth considering that there are elements of our musical language which are probably just biologically wired into us," he says.

"Part of a composer's job can actually be not to make certain associations. So, for example, if your brief was to produce a commercial for toilet tissue, the very last thing you would want to do is stress anything that was biological."

Few believe, or at least like to admit, that advertising has any impact on them - and surely even fewer would like to imagine that such simple melodies could sway them in any way.

But if they did not work, surely corporations would not invest so much in them. Would they?

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

...and, yet, no one mentioned 2-to-5-sec long (depending of scene) extraterrestrial musical theme from Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977)...It could be that those five monophonic synthesizer notes made much more significant influence on brands like Intel, Microsoft, Apple and bunch of mobile phone (and other gadgets) producers and providers, as well as on their in-house and/or outsourced branding practitioners? I mean, every of these brands has at least one "synthetic sonic logo" up-to-5-sec/notes long?
dejanvul, London, UK

At school, the bell signified the start and end of day. For the office worker, it is the Microsoft Windows musical ditty when it first loads on a computer in the morning. More poignant though is the "Windows closing" ditty that gets everyone in the otherwise silent office to turn around and see who is heading off home early!
A Moore, Durham, UK

Sonic Branding Works. I have to turn off the default sounds on my Windows based PC to avoid feeling violent every time it starts up.
Paul Ackroyd, Derby, UK

Intel forcing every client company to play their jingle at some point during adverts, eventually enraged me to the point where I actively seek to buy products from their competitors. During every Dell advert, should the mention an Intel processor, I'd be on edge waiting for the inevitable hated jingle.
James, Cambridge

Two advertising jingles I've never gotten out of my head - Ariston and Calgon. Amusingly, I've never used either product...
Sharon, London, uk

Next step, TVs and radios that produce smells.
Luke, Bromley. Greater London

Very clever jingles sometimes use the number of syllables in the company name or product, even without the word said - so the brain fills in the gap itself, creating a feeling of affinity with the brand.
Ben Skinner , Leeds

Sadly for Nokia, their trademark jingle is now even more associated with Dom Joly than with their name. Who doesn't at least think of a loud-mouthed man shouting "hello?" when they hear that noise. As for both McDonald's and Intel, I actively try to turn down the TV volumen when those horrible jingles appear.
Richie Brown, Aberdeen, UK

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