Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The Audio Mark as a Storytelling Platform

Image by: Craig Cloutier
Music, as we know, comes in many forms. And one person's music is another person's noise.

Readers of this blog know I'm fascinated by microstructures; that is, those forms of noise and aural expression that may not represent complete 'works' as we think of the concept, but which nonetheless capably convey meaning.


For instance, where one single pitch might convey neither music nor meaning, two pitches in a sequence –if they are the right pitches– might serve to conclude a story, a song, or even an event, such as a religious service. The two pitches in question are, of course, IV and I, which we know as a 'descending cadence', and which together package enough signification in one descending step that whenever they are deployed, everyone within earshot receives the exact same message: This is where the story ends.


As it happens, it is the identification and contextualization of such nano sized musical expressions that provide the underlying conceptual framework whenever we are commissioned with the construction of an AUDIO MARK (and whether we are conscious of this activity or not).

For this reason, I do not always think of an Audio Mark as a micro musical work itself, but instead as a communication asset composed of sonic elements, especially in regards to non melodic marks. Such composition is often closer to sound design, in my mind, being born of qualitative research, analysis and a methodical construction process rather than simply inspired composition.

The outcome of inspired composition is not always immediately apparent, nor the activity always directed. When making music we may simply want to entertain; and the music may have no reason for being at all, except that we conceived it, either as formalized composition or improvisation. In contrast to this common artistic process, the construction or design of an Audio Mark is always crafted with purpose, and often to a client's detailed specifications. Thus, if the outcome of traditional composition can be said to be our moods set to music, marks represent the attempt to package data into non verbal sound. In other words, we are asking ourselves how sound may be used for signification.

This process is not limited to commercial branding; it has long been used in the creation of scores whose themes and other elements might serve to indicate an actor, an animal, the weather, or something else.

But when our task is branding, then much like a Morse code pattern, our intention not so much to create an entertaining rhythm but to package data in a way that a given audience can and will actually decode the resultant sonic expression And if the message is not so distinct as to be unintelligible, and coded with cultural conventions in mind, then there actually stands a very good chance that it will be received and understood.


While music fundamentally suggests mood, I believe that brands –if they are to live in the world as semi or crowd conscious entities– shouldn't be defined or limited by the results of a mood board alone. What kind of actual person only possesses a single mood? Psychopaths and sociopaths. Certainly,  some management teams might be accused as lacking empathy, but when crafting identity assets for a client, one should create assets that might be made to respond in the same manner as healthy human attributes. To put it another way, our moods ebb and our reputation might change, but our identity is generally regarded as stable.

Identity assets should therefore be responsive, and crafted in a way that allows for scale and variation. Easier done in print with size and color; and easy still, if our mark is melodic in nature, but somewhat more difficult if the mark has been produced as an immutable sonic construction, for instance, when designed as a parallel experience and synchronized to a specific moving image. Nevertheless, if we want a mark to carry, then it must possess the capacity to scale infinitely, or at least within a set of parameters that we identify as true to that specific identity.

This is not to suggest that every mark be designed as a musical motif, though the two concepts in their most popular forms share similar characteristics.

But something very different happens when we hear a mark than when we listen to a motif. A strong mark will be perceived as a whole entity and independent of any other asset within the same single framed context.  Motives, on the other hand, while they may express variation, are perceived as dependent on other assets within the same single framework.

Motives, on the other hand, are deployed in such a way as to produce continued delight and interest with every variation. Indeed, we might even define traditional music not as organized sound, as is the convention, but as any construct that employs reiteration and also, the thematic variation of a pattern. Given this definition, the thing might not even be aural, which is why we can look at the sky or the ocean, or  even traffic, and describe it as a musical experience.

Music is essentially patterns at play.

And it's also why we may not always frame an Audio Mark as a musical work. It does use elemental musical sounds in its construction, but it is of singular design and voices so quickly any inherent patterning is either lost or non existent. Repeat it again and again without variation, and while the result will likely demand our attention, it may equally be perceived as annoying if the alerting sound does not signify incoming important information, hence our response to Ringtones.

We can very easily design interesting or pleasing ringtones, but our perception of any ringtone will nevertheless be shaped by the user and those nearby.  We might even forgo the repeating tone, riff or sample and actually trigger a complete work with each incoming call, but it even high fidelity rendition of recording of 'Ode to Joy' by the Berlin Philarmonic might strike another commuter as irritating if the phone's owner continued to receive multiple calls between Dover and Brick Church.

And it may be that the Alert construction is the most effective construct for a Ringtone simply because it frames the subsquent experience as one of information processing.


Melodic audio marks also share some similar characteristics to another form of sonic identity asset, being THE BROADCAST STING. Both Audio Mark and Broadcast Sting serve as a form of conceptual punctuation that sends a single message –again, like Morse code. But unlike Morse code, we do not want to hear either a sting or a mark repeat within a single context. Or if it does repeat, the inherent message of both the sting and mark become diminished by the sense of urgency conveyed by the repetitive aural experience. Alternately, if this is the desired effect, then the message is simply reduced to 'URGENT'.
Of course, all four forms of micro musical expression discussed here –The Audio Mark, the Descending Cadence, The Ringtone and The Broadcast Sting– are designed to work like zipped semiotics, which once open, a given marketer's message will be decoded and delivered.

I've participated in the production of several network package music and sound design projects: CNN, ESPN, HBO Zone, MTV, PBS and VH1, to name a few.

Interestingly, The Broadcast Sting is the only expression of the four that is not constructed as an independent statement. Ending on an anticipatory high note, the Sting, while designed to brand a television station, network or cable channel, is also designed as an open ended inconclusive element, which if we compare to sentence structure,

suggests interruption. The Sting thus requires a listener/viewer to wait until later (typically, 'after these messages') before being 'rewarded' with aural or musical closure (finishing the sentence). Indeed, the Sting does not so much announce who he is, as he compel us to wait another moment before closing with a big reveal.

Whatever construction is appropriate to the task, the message is clear: even micro musical structures can be employed in the support of storytelling; and a skilled sonic artisan can capably convey a lot of non verbal information in mere seconds, and sometimes in even just one second.

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