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Soundings: sonic health check…pay attention at the back

by Michael Spencer on Wednesday 30th of September 2009

Sonic health check – Michael Spencer contemplates the possibility of ‘organic’ use of sound.
Pay attention at the back – and Andrew Peggie delves into the problem of low level processing.
Sound Strategies News – The Japan Matsuri in London and more web audio research announced.

Sonic health check

This month we take another look at the question of noise. A topic not often high on the agenda of marketing executives, agencies or composers. But perhaps it will become more so for those who read this issue.

The usual layman’s definition of noise is simple: unwanted sounds. One problem with this is that it does not distinguish between sounds which are not noticed (possibly unnecessary sounds) and sounds which are noticed and are disturbing. Because it is hard to shut off our ears at will (we can easily turn away our eyes, but we cannot close our ears), we are subject frequently to sounds which are basically un-needed, uninformative and unattractive. Although our ears continue to react to the sound pressure waves, our brain will often switch off the attention/engagement process.

We hear but we do not listen. In some cases, however, the effect of prolonged background noise will have lasting physiological effects on the body, even if the attention element is missing. High blood pressure, increased heart rate and other stress indicators can all be triggered by background noise such as city traffic, aircraft or noisy working conditions. The sounds do not have to be loud, but constant enough to cause subconscious attention distraction making both concentration and relaxing more difficult.

On the other hand – as we outline below – certain background sounds may benefit our working or leisure environment even if we do not pay full attention to them. Researchers have labelled this ‘low level processing’, and it has become a useful concept in the field of television advertising, in gauging the effectiveness of music backing tracks on commercials.

Two questions arise: (1) does constant low level processing of sound and music (in an environment where radio, television and personal stereo are ubiquitous) encourage the brain to adopt this as its default way of perceiving sound – in the same way that it learns to switch off unwanted background noise? And (2) at what point does low level processing switch from positive to negative physiological effects?

Are we becoming progressively de-sensitized to all sound and music? Is the sonic environment subtly infecting our mental health in the same way that pesticides and food additives can undermine our physical wellbeing?

We cannot yet offer answers, or indeed solutions. Though quality, imagination, care and integrity may well be some of the ingredients in the creation of low level processed backing tracks, in the same way that organic produce and natural products are likely to be more beneficially to our long-term health.

How about a switch to ‘organic’ television commercial production?

Michael Spencer


Pay attention at the back

The interesting thing about noise is that we all need some of it in order to complete certain tasks or enjoy certain activities. More accurately, what we need is background sound, often containing just enough stimulation to keep our brain functioning at optimum levels while coasting through an unrelated task. The science of psycho-acoustics calls this form of half paying attention to sound, low level processing, a form of listening usually sneered at by serious music listeners (in both senses of the phrase) who find it hard to accept listening with anything less than 100% concentration on the music.

However, low level processing could turn out to be of critical importance when trying to gauge the interaction between music and image – in a television commercial for example.

What we do know is that 100% aural concentration on a piece of music for 100% of the time is almost humanly impossible. Although the hearing continues, the audio processing part of the brain which interprets the sounds and makes real-time connections with memory, emotions and images works by dipping into and out of the sound-stream as it progresses. Even in concert hall conditions, one’s initial focus on the opening phrases of music is almost certain to falter before the first two minutes of music have elapsed. We might notice something or someone in the hall, we might switch attention to the movement of a musician, or perhaps wonder if we remembered to lock the car or switch off the mobile. Some people will try to glance at the programme notes to gain some idea of what is happening in the music.

This is common to everyone, even in high level processing situations when the we are supposed to be paying attention. It is because hearing alone is rarely the whole story. Ideally, cognitive (intellectual), affective (emotional), memory (associative), visual and physical apperception of the music all work in tandem, leading to an intense ‘flow’ experience. The greater the number of faculties engaged, the better the chances of a memorable good time.

Such outcomes are part and parcel of the arguments for music’s effectiveness in marketing and brand recognition. However, music in these contexts rarely achieves anything beyond than a marginal, low level processing status. The product is centre stage, followed by the images, visual logos and perhaps text and voice-over. Library music used for backing commercials and corporate videos is deliberately designed to lack key aural stimuli – it should not draw attention to itself.

Composers and creative directors know this. So however seductive it is to advance arguments about music’s efficacy in promoting brand recognition, when it comes to practicalities, it is those very memorable attributes in the music which are lacking in the context in which it is employed. It is certainly not intended to provoke intense or unexpected emotional reactions. And therefore it cannot realistically do the job of cementing a new affective link with the brand, product or company.

We need a better theory of low level processing.

We do know that background music in work environments involving repetitive tasks (assembly lines for example) is effective at maintaining on-task concentration. The rule of thumb states that the more intellectual processing the brain has to cope with during a task, the more distracting background noise or music becomes. Anyone plotting a four-dimensional planning schedule should really take to a darkened, sound-proofed room…

A high proportion of television commercials and online corporate videos employ background music as a low level processing agent, although the video producers might rarely admit to that. In reality, the music functions purely as an intermittent distracter for video and voice-overs – which often struggle to deliver compelling content. It becomes simply a means of preventing the viewer from falling asleep, or switching off, providing a form of rhythmic pace-maker otherwise lacking in the editing or presentation. Nostalgia and other associative factors also play a large part.

However, what is uncertain about low level processing is how much, if any, affective or emotional residue remains after a hearing (or several). Since low level processing is at its most effective when the music genre is already familiar aural territory (hence the preference for mass-appeal undifferentiated pop/techno tracks), it is likely that the effect simply re-enforces existing affective connections.

Music intended for low level processing is nothing new. Doubtless this was also the case for the hundreds of hours of nondescript ‘functional’ music produced in the 17th and 18th centuries for ceremonials and daily entertainment.

What is new, however, is today’s high incidence of background music (not asked for and difficult to opt out of) compared to foreground, ‘performance’ music, where the listener chooses to pay attention. It is virtually impossible to escape the former, short of emigrating to the remote countryside.

Thus, chaining together a series of unrelated broadcast commercials, most with music tracks intended only for low level processing, can result in a constant aural ‘carpet’ of sound which may indeed trigger a negative response by the brain.
The sound becomes noise. Attention levels to even foreground sound, such as voice-overs, drops and instead negative physiological factors come into play: increased stress levels. The music becomes an anaesthetic (sensory depressing) element rather than an aesthetic (sensory awakening) one.

Advertisers have limited choice and little control over the context in which a commercial is broadcast and received. But if the cumulative effect of a sea of commercials is to negate the very point of them, then alternative approaches will have to be tried.

Andrew Peggie


Sound Strategies News

  • Sound Strategies is about to embark on anther WAR programme – that’s as in ‘web audio research’. A year ago a survey of 500 corporate websites conclude that the corporate world still viewed the internet as a kind of digital repository and filing system, with little use made of media such as video, podcasts, flash animation – and sound. Suspecting that things may have moved on a little, the intention to look again at how the corporate world – in particular its online customer-facing portals – is utilising sound and video, and whether there is any strategic relevance of the content to the company’s overall image and brand values. Watch the space above…
  • On September 19 last, in one of London’s most original retail areas, Spitalfields Market, Sound Strategies MD, Michael Spencer, was responsible for a huge consumer attraction featuring the music, sounds and images of Japan. The Matsuri, a traditional Japanese form of festival-cum-street-market, attracted over 30,000 people and featured dozens of Japanese product outlets as well as a full programme of entertainment, competitions, and exhibitions. Spencer commented: ‘retail spaces can no longer just be a collection of shops. They need to be enlivened and given a sense of theatre and eventfulness. That’s what we wanted to achieve with the Matsuri. A total sensory experience, themed around Japan.’
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