In this 99U talk, Joel Beckerman, a composer and the founder of Man Made Music, reveals how fundamental sound is to our everyday experiences, and why it’s crucial to think about sound design at the outset of creative projects — not as an afterthought. Joining Joel to demonstrate the power of sound is the choir from the Kaufman Music Center’s Special Music School.
About Joel Beckerman: Joel Beckerman is an award-winning composer, producer and the founder of Man Made Music, a global sonic studio. He is the author of The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy and is dedicated to solving human and business challenges through Sonic Humanism, the power of music and sound to make lives richer and simpler.
As innovators in their field, Joel and Man Made Music have partnered with global brands such as AT&T, Disney, Deloitte, Abbott, Hulu, Nissan, QVC, IMAX, and Subway to craft unique sonic experiences. His work began in network television creating themes for Entertainment Tonight, HBO Features, CBS This Morning, and The Super Bowl on NBC, and has evolved into pioneering new musical approaches for sound in products, brands and environments.
Joel is a leader on the subject of sound, business, and the future of humanity. He has been featured on stages around the world including The Wall Street Journal D.Live, SXSW, Cannes Lions, London Design Week, C2 Montreal, Fast Company Innovation Festival, and Future of StoryTelling. For his work, Fast Company honored Joel as one of their Most Creative People in Business 1000. He is a PROMAX board member, helped found the New York chapter of the Society of Composers and Lyricists, and proudly serves on the ASCAP board.
Whether or not we realize it, our whole world is scored by music and sound. It’s this hidden actor that guides our choices, changes our mood in an instant, and makes or breaks emotional connections we have with people, places, and things. Like a movie score, music and sound guides all our experiences moment to moment, and that evokes powerful emotions, which emblazon specific memories in our brains, memories that can be triggered in an instant.
Thank you, Maestro Williams.
We actually respond to sound quicker than any other sense, which means that sound is actually the arbiter of all our senses. As human beings, we don’t need to be taught this stuff. We’re wired for it. Sound may be the most powerful, misunderstood and underused tool we have in design, marketing, and architecture. Used rightly, sound actually can solve design problems and really influence behavior, heighten experiences and humanize technology, but only if you utilize what I call ‘sound-first design’.
Now, this may be completely counterintuitive. It may not be how you’re used to working, but as the world becomes more digital, as technology becomes more integrated into our lives, designing from humans at the center has never been more important. Now, human-centered design is not new. It’s top of mind for all of us. But most designers forget about sound.
Sound-focused design, sound-first design IS human-centered design. And what’s more human than sound? Lemme tell you a story. In the early days of HBO, unbeknownst to my parents, my siblings and I had, ages six to ten, we had access to some, perhaps, age-inappropriate movies. Have you ever seen “The Exorcist”? So when we got really scared by the action, what I did was I actually turned down the sound on the television and then re-scored the picture using the sounds from this big old portable organ we had. You know the kind that has an air blower that blows over these plastic reeds that vibrate and you can trigger with a keyboard? So I’d re-score the picture in ways that would make the actions seem funny, hilarious actually. So even at the moments when Regan’s head was spinning or spewing green pea soup, the crazy sounds of the organ had us break into fits of laughter.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but actually what I was doing was I was redesigning my experience with sound. And when the sound was actually dissonant with what the picture was, we believed our ears and not our eyes. That’s sound-first design. Composer Hans Zimmer says, “If you’re really freaked out at a horror movie, don’t close your eyes, close your ears.” Too bad we weren’t born with earlids.
Okay, so let’s play a game for a moment. I want you to look at this picture of one of London’s most beloved landmarks, Big Ben. Now, I want everyone in the room here to close your eyes. No, really, close your eyes. It’s gonna be fun, I promise. Now listen to this. You can open your eyes now. Now, how did that make you feel? A sense of majesty, grandeur, perhaps calm? And what images did it trigger in your mind? Did you think about bobbies or double decker buses? Or perhaps you thought about walking down the streets of London or maybe the London Bridge.
Now, I want everyone to close your eyes again and listen to this. I only changed one note, but how do you feel about Big Ben now? In less than a quarter of a second, quicker than we can blink an eye, we’ve already recognized a sound and identified where it’s coming from.
Early men and women needed this to be able to bring all their senses to bear to see if what was behind that bush was lunch or if they were about to become lunch. Think of a stop sign. We live in this world of visual semiotics, this shorthand of visuals that are operating in the background we may not even be aware of. If you’re looking at a stop sign 50 yards away, you don’t need to read the word ‘stop’. You can recognize the signature red color. You can see the octagonal shape of the sign. You can see the white borders in the edges of the sign.
Well, sonic has semiotics, as well. And they’re really familiar everyday sounds that generate, really, this subconscious, at the subconscious level and really allows us to multitask like the sound of a deadbolt locking. Which lets us know we’re safe. Even if we’re carrying a big bag of groceries or having a conversation with someone, we don’t need the lock to scream out at us and say, “I’m locked!” So imagine how confused we would be if that deadbolt lock did not make a sound.
We often don’t understand this role of sound until it’s gone. Right now at the moment, electric cars don’t make a sound by themselves. So Nissan came up with the idea of essentially solving that really big pedestrian safety problem. Have you ever had one of those electric cars sneak up on you? It’s pretty scary, right? But not only solving that problem for pedestrians, Nissan was looking to create a sound that would also imbue their vehicles with a personality, a soul, if you will. And we were really fortunate that they invited us along to help solve that problem for them.
So what’s interesting is that, at the center of it, is very much a human reaction problem. So it really had to be solved design-first from sound, sound-first design. And split-second reactions actually can only be triggered by our ears. So this really was the only way to solve this particular challenge of being able to avoid these kind of big pedestrian issues for safety. And the vehicle itself had to sound like a car. It couldn’t be that someone would say, “Oh, what’s that?” and then they’d get hit by a car. So what is the personality of the vehicles? We found out through research that actually customer loved that their cars were both economical and eco-friendly.
So what does it sound like? Nissan calls the sound ‘Canto’, or, ‘I sing’, and it sounds like clean energy. Music has semiotics, too. For instance, strings. They feel warm, heartfelt, passionate. Brass sounds feel strong, powerful, a sense of heroicism. Electronic sounds tend to feel more modern, forward thinking or fun. Understanding these semiotics of sound in music is the backbone of storytelling with music.
Dr. Aniruddh Patel, who’s the associate professor of psychology at Tufts University, did a lot of work in terms of understanding, really manipulating the sound and soundtracks of film, music, and sound. And what he determined, essentially, is that music is not there to just heighten the mood. Actually, the music sets expectations about what might be coming next. It helps create associations that may not even be on the screen. It helps us understand whether the storyline is essentially resolved or not. It even helps us understand the relationship between the characters. And furthermore, it actually gives you that sense of being inside the movie and in particular, what you’ll remember from a specific scene.
But this is not just for film. Everything makes a sound. As creatives, wouldn’t you want the opportunity to score and determine what that sound should be to design it? Or would you perhaps just let it, you know, leave it for chance? Research shows that the right sound actually raises overall brand impression by up to 53%, and it also raises consideration by up to 50%. 50%. Also, there’s an 86% correlation between our subconscious response to a sound we like and our desire to have that experience again, and the opposite is also true. If we hate the sound, we never wanna have that experience again, never. This is what Facebook sounds like on my phone. Every button makes a sound. Why would I need this? Why would I want it? No wonder most people turn the sound off.
The problem is that our world is getting noisier and noisier, which scrambles all these sonic signals. In fact, we are now completely overrun by sound. From escalating traffic noise to jarring alarms and chattering devices, ill-conceived architecture is constantly reverberating in confined public spaces. It’s a meaningless cacophony that ruins our experience and makes our world feel chaotic. If you’ve ever been in a hospital, you know that it’s a horrible place to get better and in no small part because of what’s called alarm fatigue. Ill-conceived devices, medical devices actually alarm for little or no reason all the time. It confuses caregivers, it scares patients, and it creates what’s called cortisol reactions, which actually make us sicker.
So we partnered with the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum to really explore how we might take those scary sounds and transform them into what we call a symphony of healthcare. So the goal really was to redesign the sound in a way that would not and actually reduce anxiety for patients while also giving a useful combined data stream of sound to caregivers so they could instantly understand what the healthcare state of the patient was. So this is what it sounds like. Heart rate is essentially a gentle tone. There’s a steady tone against the heart rate. If you look at essentially, the next sound is looking at blood oxygenation levels, which are tuned as a little diad, and also blood pressure is determined by gentle tones. This is sound-first design. And sound-first design IS human-centered design. ♪ Ohhhh ♪ ♪ Bah bah bah ♪ ♪ Ohhh ♪
– But we must do this together. ♪ Bah bah bah ♪ ♪ Ohh ohhh ♪ ♪ Bah bah bah ♪
– As designers, artists, creatives, we are all responsible for designing a richer, simpler future. ♪ Ahh ahhhhhh ahhhhhhhh ♪ ♪ Ah ahh ahhh ♪ ♪ Ohh ohh ohh oh ohh ohohohhhh ♪
– With sound-first design, ♪ Ahh ahh ♪
– We have the ability to solve some of the most complex human challenges. ♪ Ahhhhhh ahhhhhhhh ♪
– And score the soundtrack of our lives ♪ Ahhhh ♪ ♪ Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh ♪