Monday, January 02, 2006

Say It In 1.25 Seconds

In January of 1994, Hunter Murtaugh, then Music Director for Young & Rubicam, commissioned our company to produce an International Long Distance Connection Tone for telecommunications giant, AT&T –'World Plus', as they then called the short work.

Our mandate was to convey a friendly internationality in less than two seconds. In fact, the length of the tone was to be precisely a second and a quarter in length. We produced multiple variations, and in the end a submission constructed by the company's staff orchestrator, Louis King, was selected the winner.

Louis is a graduate of the Berklee School of Music, and he also studied privately with Danny Troob. No surprise then, that given his immense talent, Louis won against the more experienced composers that he had directly been competing against.

So, what did Louis score exactly?

• A branded audio asset for AT&T: A telephony logo, a Sonic or Tonal ID
• Emotional feedback to the caller: This process is easy
• A message to the consumer: Our technology is friendly
• A confirmation of a task: Your request has been executed

In short, Louis used sound to deliver a MESSAGE. He did this not by composing a miniature score but by creating a bit of sonic signification: a bit of ear candy whose encoded information would be unpacked by the brain's of each caller. No doubt, an intuitive sense of semiotics was as important to the success of this work as was his knowledge of music or production.

However, as it happens, the deployment a connection tone was never motivated by any technological necessity. By 1994, telephony technology allowed for an instantaneous long distance connection. The use of tone to bridge a call was solely conceived as an opportunity for AT&T to remind customers of its presence and service.

After we delivered the final asset to the client, it occurred to me that if story enhancement made up the essential part of the Twentieth Century commercial composer's tool kit, that Twentieth First Century sonic artisans might increasingly abe called upon to also demonstrate expertise with signification processes, a heretofore irrelevant subject (for a musician).

Of course, composer's have long understood the emotive power of music. but why not also employ sound to convey encoded information, as this AT&T project made clear to me was a very real possibility?

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