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Soundings: talking about music…music in Japan and travel, tourism, and bodily functions

by Michael Spencer on Saturday 31st of January 2009

Talking about music – Michael Spencer on Sound Strategies’ plan to ensure you’re never lost for words.
How music in Japan assists in travel, tourism and bodily functions – Sound Strategies researcher Yukiyo Sugiyama discovers how the Japanese re-sensitise themselves with music.
Sound Strategies News – At EMI Abbey Road studios, we start a new season of  ‘Breaking the Sound Barrier’ workshops.

Talking about music

Most of us have had occasion to discuss, defend or disseminate our personal musical tastes among friends or virtual social networks, but almost without exception we stumble over inadequate vocabulary and fall back on meaningless clichés in striving to translate into words some sense of our emotional attachment to certain sounds. Even the senses of taste and smell appear to have evolved a richer linguistic palette than the world of sound has.

There are plenty who relish the mystique – they inhabit the anorak-ish worlds of concert-goers, blues fans, world music aficionados, jazz buffs and pop groupies – and who employ their semi-technical cryptic phraseology as much for exclusion purposes as for enlightenment. But when it comes to discussing the ordinary, everyday, universal impact of music on people from whichever background, we seem to lack a lexicon capable of doing it justice.

Which is why part of Sound Strategies’ mission is to develop clear, non-technical ways of reflecting on how music works. It is important because only by using universally understood and commonly accepted terminology is it possible to take some distance from the super-personal self-indulgent ramblings we all fall into when trying to answer a question like: ‘why do you like this music?’

Total objectivity would be impossible of course. However, total subjectivity is all-too-common, even in contexts where it should really be prohibited, such as discussions about the function of music in a marketing campaign.

We know this because brand managers and agencies tell us they have difficulty in articulating what they expect from music. So discussion of any kind – let alone objective discussion – rarely features on creative feedback agendas.

Some commentators have called sound the Cinderella of the advertising media. If so, then perhaps Sound Strategies will turn out to be the Fairy Godmother…

Michael Spencer


How music in Japan assists in travel, tourism and bodily functions

In Japan there is a belief that sound can have a great impact on business because of its psychological effect on people. A speculative but plausible explanation might be because the Japanese language contains many imitative and onomatopoeic sounds, often drawn from nature, so they preserve an in-built sensitivity to both the sounds themselves and their symbolic meanings. Left and right brains working in tandem.

Here are four case studies illustrating Japanese sensitivity to the urban sonic environment (certain links are in Japanese). Some were featured on TV Tokyo’s World Business Satellite programme which broadcast a series on the psychological elements affecting business: the psychological economy. For example, how colours and sound can affect the consumer behaviour directly and indirectly.


1) The ‘departure melody’

People the world over recognize the sound of a train whistle just before its departure. In Japan, departing commuter trains use bells to alert people to mind the doors. But some Japanese train companies have noticed that warning bells create additional problems. Instead, they have adopted ‘departure melodies’.

The traditional bells tend to create a sense of panic as people rush to squeeze into the carriage at the last second, just before the doors close, creating knock-on delays for the following trains. (London Underground travellers will recognise the problem.)

The new ‘doors closing’ tunes are true melodies with musical phrasing and development. As such, they operate less on a Pavlovian level and more on a cognitive and affective level. The idea is to regulate the pace of movement in order to eliminate log-jams of people rushing for the doors. Here is an example.

Junichi Sugiyama of Business Media Makoto comments that the departure melodies can also be seen as a result of the railway companies’ increasing corporate awareness. Although the priority as alert/warning signals remains, at the same time, they should employ entertaining content to promote a more pleasant travelling experience. Minoru Mukaiya, CEO of Ongakukan Co. Ltd., a train-related music production company, believes that an effective combination of departure melodies, ambient sounds and p.a. announcements can combine to create an almost theatrical experience for travellers – and one which also creates a strong sense of brand awareness. Mukaiya is also the keyboard player in the fusion band Cassiopeia.

Keihan Dentestu, a private railway company in the Kyoto area, West Japan, carefully chose suitable music for each train line with regard to how busy it can be. For the busier lines, they use a piece of music in triple time with a faster pace to encourage movement. Elsewhere, they use medium-paced four-beat melodies which can make people feel more settled.


2) The Kyoto Tower

When the observatory of the Kyoto Tower was renovated in 2006/7, sonic environment specialist, Masafumi Komatsu, was asked to advise on optimizing the aural experience of a visit to the tower. Komatsu states that landscape is a thing to enjoy with not only the eyes but also all other senses.

The first issue that Komatsu addressed was to assure a sense of quietness. He suggested reducing electrical equipment noise by removing unnecessary gaming machines and photo booths. Secondly Komatsu aimed to ameliorate the echo effects caused by people moving around inside the observatory. The floors were covered with fabric that absorbs reverberation and muffles footsteps. Finally Komatsu suggested different types of background music for morning, daytime, and evening – and even for different weather conditions. This is intended to enhance the visitor experience in tune with the changing scenery as viewed from the tower. The locations of playback speakers were also carefully chosen to ensure even sound diffusion.

TV Tokyo reports that Komatsu’s ‘psychological soundscape design’ project was so successful that admission numbers increased by 15%. Hear the before and after mp3s for yourself .


3) Siren Beeps

Japan experiences approximately 1000–
1500 noticeable earthquakes every year. Earthquake damage limitation and warning systems are taken very seriously. An important factor in decreasing the scale of possible damage is how promptly warnings and information can be disseminated.

The Real-time Earthquake Information Consortium reports that ‘three continuous beeps is the best combination [of sounds] as an emergency warning’. Since 2004,it has conducted questionnaire surveys on the issue of siren warning and has published two official research reports in collaboration with a number of academics, engineers and corporate executives.

Its latest report, published in 2005, claims that a ’signature sound’ itself does not have to have a specific meaning but it is more effective in alerting people immediately than a spoken announcement which might be missed or difficult to make. According to the REIC, a ‘sweep tone’ in which the frequency changes rapidly tends to be recognised as the ’emergency sound’. Moreover it is unlikely to be lost amongst other ambient noise because of its varying frequency range. Listen to the sound voted ‘best signature sound in an emergency’ here: http://www.real-time.jp/about/SET3.WAV (You may have to cut/paste the link into your browser.)


4) ‘Oto-hime’

In Japan, public toilet convention dictates a certain modesty around bodily functions. There is an unspoken agreement that women should flush the toilet or make other effective sounds in order to diminish the sounds of the business in hand.

Oto Hime was launched in 1988 by Toto Toilets, one of the biggest toilet retailers in Japan. Following a severe drought in 1978 Toto executives realized that toilet modesty actions among women were using 10-15 litres of water each time.

So they invented their audio ‘flushing-camouflage’ sound effect which automatically plays back water flushing sounds as soon as someone sits down on the toilet. According to one of their assessments, Oto-Hime saved 64 million yen in a year on water consumption across a sample of 43 office buildings.

Researcher: Yukiyo Sugiyama
Editor: Andrew Peggie

Yukiyo Sugiyama trained as a classical pianist in Tokyo. She recently completed a MA in Arts Administration and Cultural Policy at Goldsmiths College, London, with a specialisation in ‘the relationship between corporate social responsibility and the arts’. She is currently a researcher for Sound Strategies.


Sound Strategies News

January saw the start of Sound Strategies’ 2009 Breaking the Sound Barrier training days. This first one took place at EMI Abbey Road studios in London, with clients of TBWA. The comprehensive (and scarily enjoyable) introduction to the world of music and sound, and how they function, in the historical centre of the sound recording universe, is designed specially for brand managers and creative agencies who would like to know everything there is to know about sound but are too afraid to ask.

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