Breaking Down The World's Most Iconic Sounds

It’s easy to tune out the sound of a computer starting up. It signals an anticipation and waiting to access the information or experience on the other side. But for two sonic branding experts, those little beeps, min-melodies, and pops all have deep, deliberate meaning.

Sonic branding, a noun, describes the use of sound to reinforce brand identity of a product or service. While you may not be aware of it, the sound has a huge part in how we make purchasing decisions and experience technology. Moreover, there are people out there who devote their lives to these micro-experiences.

Two famous sonic branding experts sat down with Wired magazine and dissected 27 of the world’s most recognizable sounds. Steve Milton, Founding Partner at Listen, and Andrew Strafford, Co-founder, and Director at Big Sync Music, were given a few dozen samples and asked to spitball some sonic truth.

Andrew Strafford (L) and Steve Milton (R) breakdown some of the world's most recognizable sounds.

Andrew Strafford (L) and Steve Milton (R) breakdown some of the world's most recognizable sounds.

In the “The Psychology Behind the World's Most Recognizable Sounds,” we are given a sonic peek into sounds we hear on a daily basis. While the list included some heavy hitters like the THX sound, the Sega startup, and the AOL Dial Up, one of the most recognizable sounds in the bunch was the Window’s 95 startup sound.

Strafford describes it as a seeing a window opening. “You start looking for something, and I think if you remember there was lots of Windows that kind of faded out,” explains Strafford. “[The sound creator] has kind of taken that visual cue and kind of recreated this reverberation of that window continuing to open.”

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Microsoft commissioned Brian Eno, who’s famous for collaborating with David Bowie, the Talking Heads, and U2, to create the short arpeggio.

In a conversation with SF Gate back in the mid-1990’s, Eno explained this idea for the Windows 95 startup sound came to him when he was in a creative dry spell. Eno appreciated getting to work on a project to solve one specific problem.

According to Eno, “the agency said, "We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah- blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional," this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said "and it must be 3 1/4 seconds long."”

Brian Eno created the Windows 95 Startup sound.

Brian Eno created the Windows 95 Startup sound.

While creating a short clip of this length would be no problem for a seasoned musician and producer, there is a lot of care and work that goes these clips. Eno, himself, thought it was quite humorous and was up to the challenge of making this tiny piece of “music.” In his words, he approached the work “like making a tiny little jewel.”

In the end, he created 84 different pieces of the Windows 95 Startup sound and got completely lost into this world. “I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work,” Eno explains. “Then when I'd finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.”

If you want to learn more about sonic branding and what some of the most iconic sounds mean, we highly recommend checking out Wired “The Psychology Behind the World’s Most Recognizable Sounds.”

As you watch this video, think about how this landscape will change as 3D and spatial audio continues to spread. How might sonic brand sounds be approached when sounds are no longer limited by stereo playback? Share in the comments below.