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The artistry behind the beeps, dings, and chimes that fill our auditory landscapes

By Stacy Conradt

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You’ve almost certainly never heard the word “earcon,” but you’ve definitely heard one: that little startup chime for Windows computers, for example, or that little “boo-doop” that Alexa makes when you say her name.

Earcons are basically a dad joke—a pun on “icons,” which sounds like “eye-cons”—that have become omnipresent sound bites signposting our digital lives. The term was coined by D.A. Sumikawa in a 1985 technical report called “Guidelines for the integration of audio cues into computer user interfaces,” but let’s cut through the jargon: Earcons are those helpful little sounds that help you interact with technology.

With the rise of voice assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant, they’re becoming more and more ubiquitous, weaving seamlessly into the soundtrack of our days.

Six things earcons shouldn’t be confused with

  • Auditory ions: These are sound effects that represent a specific object, function, or action. For example, a car horn noise to represent a car or a “moo” to represent a cow.
  • Spearcons: Speech-based earcons, often created by speeding up a phrase to the point where it’s no longer recognizable, which can create auditory menus that help the visually impaired use mobile devices.
  • Identitones: Corporate “sound logos,” like the Maxwell House percolator tune (written by composer Eric Siday, who coined the term) or the NBC tritone chimes. (Party fact! Until World War II, the NBC tritone very rarely added a fourth chime for big breaking news stories, as a way to signal staff to rush to the office.)
  • Fear Con, a Halloween convention in Salt Lake City
  • GEAR Con, a steampunk convention in Portland
  • Beer-Con, a craft brew convention in San Diego

The art and science

Wired spoke with two audio branding experts (related: that’s a thing) to get their thoughts on dozens of famous earcons and audio brands, delving into the psychology and exquisite care that goes into these tiny little works of art.

The creation of an earcon

Because they’re just a few notes long, you might think earcons are a snap to create. Their composers would unanimously and emphatically disagree with you. Take the Windows 95 startup noise, for example. When legendary musician Brian Eno was asked to create the iconic jingle, he was told to compose something that was inspiring, universal, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional—and 3.25 seconds long.

Walter Werzowa, who composed the iconic five-note theme used by Intel, was tasked with an equally daunting request: to come up with “tones that evoked innovation, trouble-shooting skills and the inside of a computer, while also sounding corporate and inviting.”

If you enjoy the zen-like earcon of your Mac rebooting, you have the tenaciousness of Jim Reekes to thank. The original Mac startup noise, he said, was “literally the most dissonant sound you can make”—a tritone chord also known as “the devil’s interval.” Though none of his bosses wanted to improve the offensive tone, Reekes was so obsessed that he snuck into the office in the middle of the night to change it.

Quotable

“I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.”
Brian Eno

Million-dollar question

Do earcon composers (earconposers?) get rich from the royalties?

Nope. Although the “Intel Inside” earcon has been named the #2 “most addictive sound in the world,” Werzowa didn’t make bank. Though he won’t say exactly what he earned for the two-week project, Werzowa has said the amount was “not really amazing,” and that “if I would have kept the copyright, I’d be a millionaire right now.”

Origin story

Reuters/Christian Hartmann

Who wrote the Nokia ringtone?

Ringtones are by far the most common earcons in our smartphone-saturated world, and the most famous—or infamous—is the Nokia Tune. It’s based on a snippet of a piece called “Gran Vals” by Spanish composer Francisco Tárrega, which was chosen by two Nokia executives. At the height of the Finnish company’s reach, it was heard an estimated 1.8 billion times a day.

Sounds of the subway

The “door closing” tones used on subway lines have been ringing in the ears of New York City commuters since long before smartphones. These chimes originated with the 1970s R44 subway car, which is still in limited use today. (The ones with the orange seats.)

The subway cars on the 2, 4, and 5 lines have an accidental earcon—many people recognize it as the opening notes from “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.” The propulsion system used by the trains has electrical inverters that chop up the direct current into distinct frequencies for the alternating current motors, Jeff Hakner, a professor of electrical engineering at Cooper Union, explained to the New York Times. These frequencies interact with the steel tracks to recreate Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway melody.

How earcons save lives

Hospitals rely heavily on “auditory displays” for communicating critical information to healthcare workers who are constantly moving around and may be looking in any direction. “Studies show that healthcare workers respond much faster to auditory than to visual alarms,” according to User Experience Magazine (which is also a thing). Because they’re so vital to keeping track of, well, vitals, keeping sounds simple pays off in this case. Studies have shown that medical professionals have a harder time remembering alerts and alarms that have melodies as opposed to those with “undifferentiated single-note sounds.”

Baby, you can drive my earcon

Electric cars can be dangerously silent, sneaking up on pedestrians and particularly the blind. Starting in 2019, US automakers will have to make sure their cars “make audible noise” while traveling at speeds of up to 19 mph. (Any faster than that, and wind and tire resistance should make enough of a racket.) Regulators haven’t specified what kind of noise the cars will have to make. Most manufacturers will probably mimic the sounds of gas-powered vehicles, though they could always get creative.