Symphony in B(eeps)

Gadget sounds of our lives.

Posted: July 05, 2011

We have woven ourselves into a ubiquitous braid of tiny musics. Sweet, grating, deafening; ringtones, beeps, startup and shutdown jingles, notes of welcome, questioning, and warning.

We have remade our sonic universe to reflect all the things we want our gadgets and tools to do for us. Sound is our ongoing conversation with all these aids.

A Hamilton Beach microwave oven beeps a C when you hit a button, when a cooking task is done, or when it wants your attention for some other thing. Turn on the Hewlett-Packard PC and it hits an A of hello. A Verizon customer turns on an LG cellphone and enjoys a spray of notes at startup. The tune was written by a composer commissioned by Verizon, which did not respond to requests to identify the composer by name. But LG created the sounds for the phone itself. Hit the OK button, and it beeps a G. SEND, END, and CLR beep in A; warning beeps niggle you in F. At shutdown, a tiny tune bids farewell.

Our Samsung TV sings a liquid run upward from B when I press the blue, eyelike ON button. The run glisses down when I exit.

Who figures out what the notes are going to be?

A lot of people.

Taking the call. Sumanth S. Gopinath is an assistant professor of music at the University of Minnesota and a scholar of ringtones. He says we've created a "treble culture" - a world of high, tiny digital beeps in toys, watches, and gadgets. Although these technologies "originated in the U.S., Japanese producers took to them with particular alacrity," he says. Japan and East Asia have been especially prominent in creating global treble culture.

We may be creating a culture of shorter and shorter musical forms. One of the most familiar pieces of music in the world, says Gopinath, is the "Nokia Tune" - you know it (http://bit.ly/4sqW5q) - which "is heard 1.8 billion times a day." Gopinath says short musical pieces like this, heard in the thousands, amount to a kind of "world music."

And world advertising. Such music, because it's short and relatively quiet, might not seem all that pressing. "But given their distribution over large numbers of users," Gopinath says, "they add up to a tapestry that cumulatively has a powerful effect." The "Nokia Tune," the Apple "Marimba," the "Vista Tune" - all are soft, constant assertions of a corporate source. "Sonic branding"!

And sonic competition. Many people, Gopinath says, modify their ringtones, "and even use them as part of a low-grade sonic warfare in public space - akin to what earlier generations did with the boombox."

Desktop and mobile music. The amount of music a desktop computer plays is startling. But the standard beeps your machine makes are separate from the audio prompts your programs make.

On most PCs, the beeps at startup, booting, crashing, and so on largely are based on the original IBM basic input/output operating system (BIOS) beep codes. The software controlling those beeps is firmware - fixed, small software programs hard-wired into the machine. They are fairly standard in PCs. As software has become more elaborate, however, so has the music: Windows has more than 45 different audio cues for users.

But the startup and shutdown music for phones and computers - that's a whole other, kooky world, big business, a competitive prestige market about 20 years old. It has had obscure beginnings - as with the startup sound used on almost all Macintosh computers since 1991, a big, spread-out C major chord. Mac composer/engineer Jim Reekes composed it on his Korg WaveStation at home.

Big-time composers have been hired to write the mini-themes on your phone or computer. In 1995, Brian Eno, of all people, wrote the six-second arpeggio opening for Windows 95 (http://bit.ly/cRasyz). For a 31/4-second piece, he composed 84 separate pieces - and was paid $35,000. It "set an influential precedent," says Gopinath.

Early PowerMacs opened to a strum from eminent guitarist Stanley Jordan. One of the most elaborate efforts was by Windows in 2005-06. For Windows Vista, the Windows Audio Visual Excellence team hired famed guitarist Robert Fripp to collaborate with musician Tucker Martine and composer/exec Steve Ball, head of the team. For an elaborate four-second piece, Fripp composed hours of music and hundreds of soundscapes.

And LG, maker of many cellphones, announced proudly in December that it had hired Ennio Morricone (think: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!) to write the startup music for the Optimus 2X mobile phone handset.

Leaning on the horn. These little digital musics join a much older world of analog beeps, whistles, and honks. Think of the fine art of the car horn. As cars have gotten faster, traffic thicker, and air conditioners and sound systems louder, car horns have risen in tone and loudness, to cut through the growing rumble and rush. Turns out higher notes work better, although trucks still tend to have lower notes.

For the most part, there's no standard for honks. You can tell that in a second. Stand on any street corner, and you'll hear all sorts of tones, from the A of the Volkswagen Jetta (and a much louder, sharp A in the panic mode) to the F of the Honda Civic. But who decides? And who engineers the sounds? Someone has to.

At Ford, the process involves engineers, designers, and execs, "a small group with expertise across all our products," says Pat Seashore, product engineering supervisor in the electromechanical section of Ford Motor Co.'s Dearborn research engineering center. Seashore has a witty take on her job: "I have global core horn responsibility. I'm setting the tone, ha-ha, for all of Ford in terms of our horn requirements and horn strategy."

Designing a honk, Seashore says, is "a very curious task." For the Ford F-150 truck, the best-selling U.S. vehicle in the world, "we wanted a rich, projecting tone," Seashore says. It's a tricky business, because it's not all about loudness. "You need a sound that blends in but also jumps out. So we designed a combination that was familiar but discordant enough to get your notice."

The Ford F-150 has a dual-note horn: The low note is a sharp G, and the high note is a high B. That's a major third, but it's made out-of-tune-on-purpose, at a decent but not deafening 93 decibels. And much planning went into exactly where to put the horn.

What a job! Seashore agrees: "It's a fun and very melodic world."

Walk, don't run. At thousands of pedestrian crossings throughout the land, sounds guide people across, particularly those with impaired vision. Some crossings chirp or tweet; some click or beep; still others use verbal commands. Kasim Ali, project design manager for the Philadelphia Streets Department, says the decision about what systems to use, and how they'll sound, involves several groups.

"Two things guide us," Ali says. "First, we look at the federal and state guidelines, and we fine-tune them to our needs. Second, we study what characteristics give the clearest direction to pedestrians."

Through the mayor's disability council, the city works closely with associations for people with visual and other impairments. "We stay in touch with them about the latest research about what's most effective and efficient," Ali says. "People with disabilities, the members of these associations, are already trained and informed about the audio cues they'll hear at crosswalks."

One common standard uses "cuckoo" noises to indicate north-south-running streets and "chirps" to indicate east-west-running streets. You'll hear those a lot down Broad Street. "But that's not always going to work in older towns like Philadelphia," Ali says, "where you have many diagonal streets - so how will a person with visual impairment navigate that?"

The standard, Ali says, is moving toward voice commands only: "Research increasingly suggests that's what people hear most clearly and understand the best. And it disrupts the surroundings the least."

A final tone. Why all the beeps, whistles, and chirps? "Growing demands on attention spans within a cluttered and increasingly networked media ecology," Gopinath says. On the train full of cellphone users, at the mall with competing Muzaks, we live in a network of audio "bleed," a world where, with so much going on, we need short signals as a running conversation with the gadgets that keep us in touch with our desires.


Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or @jtimpane on Twitter.

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