How Sound Design Affects Customer Response and Action

Updated: June 07, 2010

You're Not My Wife

A woman phones her husband who's in the hospital after suffering a head injury. The man recognizes his wife's voice when she tells him she'll see him in an hour. An hour later she arrives at the hospital, enters the room, and attempts to kiss him on the forehead. The man looks up at his wife startled, and says, "Who the hell are you?"

The man recognizes the woman in front of him as someone who looks like his wife, but he is completely convinced that she is an imposter even though he recognized his wife's voice over the phone only an hour earlier. This is a classic case of Capgras Delusion. The part of the brain responsible for visual recognition is functioning fine, but the part that makes the connection between his wife's appearance and what she means to him emotionally has been severed.

Without An Emotional Connection Marketing Appears Fake

The brain is made-up of various systems that operate both separately and in unison with each other. The brain's interpretive emotional mechanism, the Limbic System, is what gives meaning to the objects, images, sounds and people we encounter. Without this emotional connection things have no meaning and in fact can be regarded as fake.

Observations of Capgras Delusional patients illustrate how fundamental the sense of sound is in giving meaning to the world around us. Sound, it appears, is even a more important sense than sight in terms of attaching meaning to what we experience, a fact website owners and marketing executives need to consider when developing a Web video presentation or in any brand imaging effort.

Sound: The Final Frontier

Sound is fundamental to our survival as a species and our functioning as successful communal creatures both in our private and business lives. Sound is one of the most complex and least understood tools marketing people have, but at the same time it is probably the most important, especially when associated with video imaging.

Julian Treasure, sound expert, tells us that sound affects an audience in four fundamental ways: Physiologically, Psychologically, Cognitively and Behaviorally.

Sounds paint emotionally charged mental images even without the aid of visual stimuli. The sound of a crackling fire, coffee percolating, a baby crying, or a woman screaming evokes vivid images and associations in our heads and fills us with emotional responses. The sound of thunder sends us scrambling for cover. The rhythmic beat of a favorite song gets our toes tapping and our heads bopping. The sound of a catchy fast food jingle gets our mouths watering, creating an instant craving for a hamburger and fries. The rhythmic recital of the alphabet helps children remember their ABC's. And so on.

Sound can get your heart racing with excitement or slow it down to a state of mellow meditation. Sound can remind you of things you love, releasing endorphins and a desire to pursue the object of attraction. Sound can inform, enlighten and educate. Use sound wisely in your Web video or in your place of business, and it will communicate, influence and persuade; use it poorly and it will send your potential customers racing for the exits or clicking to your competitor's website without a second's hesitation.

Sound Tools

We associate sound with entertainment but for marketers it is a tool to be used to convert prospects into clients. When someone comes to your website they are for at least a moment, a captive, attentive audience. If your goal is to maximize impact you must use all the tools available, and that means both sight and sound.


The sound of the human voice is the most powerful sound tool marketers have at their disposal. The ability to control tonal quality, pitch, cadence and phrasing is unsurpassed as a means of delivering a meaningful, memorable marketing communication. Sound is the foundation of experience and nothing is as capable of infinite variation, nuance and meaning as the human voice.

If you pay attention to television commercials you will recognize many signature voices associated with brands: Gene Hackman, Kevin Spacey, Sam Elliot, Keifer Sutherland, John O'Hurley, and the list goes on. Those old enough to remember the original 7-Up Uncola commercials of the 1970s will remember the distinctive sound of Geoffrey Holder, or the unique clipped phrasing and cadence of Rod Serling's late 1950's 'Twilight Zone' introductions. Would people still remember classic television shows like the original 'The Prisoner' or 'Dragnet' without the sounds of Patrick McGoohan and Jack Webb ringing in their ears? Remakes and sequels just don't work without the power, presence and impact of those original distinctive voices.


Music has always been a central and significant part of people's lives. You need think no further than the notion of "our song" a musical representation of how two people feel about each other. Every generation has their sound, their musical heroes, and a play-list of their lives. The smart brands know how to use music to create emotional context and memorable experiences. There is no reason smaller companies can't do the same thing.

In an effort to promote radio advertising Bob McCurdy created a website presentation 'The Power of Sound' to introduce people to some of the fundamental influences of sound in a commercial context. In his presentation McCurdy mentions numerous examples including an article by Adrian C. North, David J. Hargreaves and Jennifer McKendrick that was featured in the 'Journal of Applied Psychology.' The example describes how sound can influence prospective customers: when French and German music was played on alternate days for an in-store wine display, sales of French wines outsold German wines on the days that French music was played, and the reverse was true on days when the German music was played.

In another example McCurdy refers to an article by Adrian C. North, Amber Shilcock and David J Hargreaves as reported in 'Environment and Behavior.' It details how classical music played in a British restaurant led to higher per table spending by customers as compared to the days when pop or no music was played.


No truer words have been spoken, or in this case sung, than when Gloria Estefan sings 'The Rhythm Is Going To Get You." Watch the images of the crowd in the video below. The crowd moves in synchronized response to the rhythm in a form of brainwave entrainment, a phenomenon describing the brain's ability to synchronize it's own electrical cycles to external rhythmic sensory stimulation.

Entrainment is a natural occurrence in nature and was first discovered in 1656 by Christian Huygens, who found that the pendulums in a room full of grandfather clocks all synchronize themselves to the same rhythm even when they initially all started swinging at different rates. In his paper "On the Effects of Lullabies," Johannes Kneutgen describes how a baby's breathing, rhythmically responds to music. Since brain waves pulsate like sound waves in cycles per second it is easy to see how the phenomenon of entrainment can have a fundamental affect on how we think and react to rhythmic stimulation.


In Bob McCurdy's presentation 'The Power of Sound' he describes how in the 1970s, IBM worked to eliminate the sound of their new electric typewriters in an attempt to provide a better work environment, but the effort had a negative effect. IBM had to add back an electronic sound to the typewriters as typists found the silence disconcerting. The rhythmic sound gave the operators assurance that they were on-task and accomplishing something and that the typewriters were working properly.

A Nissan team of engineers led by music consultant, Toshiyuki Tabata, had to create an artificial high-pitched sound similar to the flying cars in the movie "Blade Runner" for their new hybrids, as drivers felt the silent running hybrids were missing something. And in fact the silent automobile was a potential traffic hazard as other vehicles and pedestrians could not hear it coming. In the same regard when the Las Vegas casino, The Bellagio, tried to eliminate the irritating sound made by slot machines, slot machine revenue decreased, forcing them to put the familiar sound effects back on the machines.

We are surrounded by sounds that give us reference, warning and comfort, without which we would lose much of the contextual information we need to function effectively on a daily basis. Big business uses sound design to create differentiating mental references for their products and brands ranging from the signature sound of how different car doors shut, to the unique crunch sounds of various breakfast cereals.

Sound Effects

McCurdy cites Herb Shuldiner's report in 'Motor Matters' regarding British psychologist, David Moxon, who found the sound of a Maserati engine turned-on women more than men, even if those women had no previous interest in cars. An observation that must not have escaped Mazda when they created their "zoom, zoom" campaign. Perhaps any guy who wants to dump the suburban van for something with a bit more zip should take his wife to a Maserati dealership.

People react to sound instinctively, a phenomenon referred to as an 'orienting reflex' first described by Ivan Sechenov, a Russian physiologist, in his 1863 book 'Reflexes of the Brain' and later referred to by Ivan Pavlov, famous for his stimulus-response work with dogs, as the "What is it?" reflex.

Sound effects are the mnemonics of our lives; they attract attention, they generate interest, they stimulate emotion, and they create desire.

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