Let’s put business aside for a bit and look at geography. I’ve spoken before about the famous wine study in the UK. In short, a wine shop played German music on certain days, and French music on others. On days when they played German music, they sold three times more German wine. On days when they played French music, they sold four times more French wine. Interesting to note that 86% of the customers who agreed to be surveyed did not notice the music. A lot has been said about this study, but no one seems to discuss what enabled this to work in the first place.
Many geographical locations, just like brands, have audio identities. There are certain sounds and certain musical instruments and styles that, either by accident or by design, are inseparable from their place of origin.
That’s not to say that this would work with every location or culture. If you were asked to play Canadian music, you might think of The Tragically Hip or Gordon Lightfoot, and while their music is certainly associated with Canada, the sound of the music itself is not obviously or traditionally Canadian. But the French and the Germans do have their own distinctive sounds. Customers associated that slow accordion music with French culture. When they heard the big brass, that oom-pa-pa of the tuba, they subconsciously thought of Germany.
All over the world different geographical locations have their own distinct sounds. Some of them have more modern origins, and some date back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Most of us have never even been to these places, but we know how they sound. We’re all familiar with the rhythms of Africa. The sitar makes us think of India. Hip-hop might take us to a sprawling urban setting. The shakuhachi and koto evoke images of Japan. And country music takes us to, well…the country.
Did you know that Hawaiian music is not actually Hawaiian? What we think of today as Hawaiian music is actually the result of a brilliant audio branding strategy dating back before audio branding was even referred to as such. The music was carefully designed to evoke images of a tropical paradise using ukuleles, steel guitars, and exotic percussion. Back in the sixties travel agencies would distribute albums of “Hawaiian” music, complete with colourful illustrations of the tropical paradise. Even big name artists like Elvis, Les Paul, and Bing Crosby released their own “Hawaiian” songs. The result is a sound that not only became inseparable from a specific locale, but it went even further than that. Today the sound is more distinctive than the landscape, despite having no real connection to the islands themselves and being designed by mainland songwriters.
Several years ago I co-produced a viral video with my friend and colleague Jared Coleman. Jared is an editor who would go on to bring his skills to the NHL. Here in Kingston, Ontario we have a bridge that makes a very distinctive humming sound. I noticed that depending on your speed you would get a different pitch, which suggested that it might lend itself to something musical. We edited various pitches and visuals, and composed O Canada with the sound of the bridge.
The video was a big hit. It got the attention not only of the people of Kingston, but also CTV, the CBC, and the Globe and Mail. It still gets several thousand views every Canada Day. For a while we assumed it appealed to people as an interesting technical experiment, and that was certainly the case for many, but over time we found that for locals, its appeal was rooted in something much deeper.
More and more we were hearing and reading comments on how people associated the sound of the bridge with the city of Kingston. These people weren’t grabbed by the technical oddity of it, but how it made them feel. Some people said it sounded like home. To those who had moved away it evoked feelings of nostalgia. And of course there were many other connections we never could have anticipated. For instance, not far from the bridge is the Kingston Rowing Club.
The emotional power of sound goes beyond musical notes. Sometimes it lies in the sounds and the timbre, the images they evoke, their associations, and the emotions they make us feel.