The Psychology of Sound: Selling the sizzle


“To understand the role that sound plays in our lives you have to go back thousands of years,” says Andy Walsh, business director of creative agency Secret Sounds. “For humans, one of the core roles of sound perception was survival. We learnt quickly that certain noises meant we have to react in a certain way.”

There’s a primacy to the experience of sound says Walsh, that makes it uniquely useful for tapping into both our emotions and primitive motivations.

“When you hear something through your ears, you react to it at a much faster rate than any other sense, so sound, in that sense, informs everything else. You hear things before you see them, so as you start to form an opinion, it’s based on that initial sound experience.”

“I think it all boils down to audio’s unique relationship with the brain,” says Matt Dickson, national head of creativity, The Studio at SCA.

“Your brain experiences and processes sound before any other sense, so in many ways audio shapes your other senses. Music and memory are also intrinsically linked – music has been known to ’wake up’ Alzheimer’s sufferers and unlock memories they had stopped being able to access. Then there’s the musicality of language. You can say the same word using five different inflections, and it will have five different meanings.”

“All of these are aspects of audio’s unique relationship with the brain that brands and marketers can use to influence purchase decisions.”

Few would doubt the evocativeness of a well-chosen sound or the effectiveness of a maddeningly unforgettable earworm. But there’s also an increasing body of research out there that actually looks to quantify emotional responses to audio content – and it’s that which has marketers interested.

Measuring effectiveness

One such study, An Empirical Study of Emotional Response to Sounds in Advertising found that an audience’s emotional response to any particular sound sample seems to come from the intersection of two similar but discrete attributes: the audience’s ‘interest’ in a sound and how well that sound captures ‘attention’.

During the survey, participants were asked to listen to 20 different sounds and answer questions regarding their emotional response toward each one. The results indicate that of the samples listened to, baby laughter, ocean waves, slot machines and adults laughing were found to be the most interesting to participants. Less interesting were the sounds of toilet flushes, car horns and ringing telephones. 

“Although a car horn blowing is among the least interesting, it was near the top of the attention list,” says the report. “Other top attention getters include the laughter of a baby and adults, a police siren, and a screaming woman.”

For all the effort, it’s a humble result and doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know. And although the researchers did not attempt to directly measure whether or not certain sounds could actually influence the audience to make a purchase – more’s the pity – the report did tenuously suggest that specific emotions generated by audio cues could have an impact on purchase behavior.

Gut feeling, quantified

“Much of our understanding of audio is intuitive,” says Dickson.

“For instance, everyone knows – or feels – that violin can add sadness to a melody. Or piano can make it sound more expensive. Or acoustic guitar can make it sound more ‘approachable’ or human’.”

That common understanding can be put to commercial use. Take audio logos for example. The right combination of sounds can produce the right associations in the listener – a process that will rely, initially at least, on ‘gut feel’. 

“For me there are two main tweaks you can make with audio logos,” says Dickson. “First, you can change the melody to dial up or dial down certain emotions. Then, once you’re as close as you think you can get with the melody, you can dial up certain emotions using certain instruments or musical treatments.”

“The key here is the ability to test audio for it’s emotional value.”

But just what would such a test look like?

To find that out, The Studio at SCA have partnered with international audio benchmarking group Veritonic.

Veritonic uses two methods of testing the emotional impact of any particular piece of audio. The first is an audience panel test. The respondents are played audio and give second-by-second feedback as to which emotions arise as they listen to a track.

“That gives us second-by-second data that we can use to figure out which notes or music styles or instruments are evoking which emotions.”

Part two is where things get really interesting however.

“The second capability we have is using artificial intelligence,” says Dickson.

“The Veritonic AI crunches all the data points from human panel tests that have been conducted over the last few years and uses those data points to make predictions as to what will happen in a human test scenario.”

“Those predictions are very accurate and the best part is it’s almost instantaneous, so we can have a singer belt out a few bars, and test it on the spot with the Veritonic AI to see if we’re hitting the right emotional buttons.”


So what does this mean for companies eager to build brand recognition? How do you make sound fit into strategy?

“You can take certain characteristics from around the brand and start to turn that into a music representation and that can be objective,” says Walsh.

“If a brand says that one of their core qualities is ‘organic’, then a literal way to interpret that is by using instruments that have been around for a long time – violins, guitars, flutes – and recorded by real musicians in the studio.”

“If the company is all about ‘collaboration’ and ‘teamwork’ for example, then you can add layers to the songs that have very distinct melodies that are different from each other, but then come together so nicely that it represents that idea.”

“And if you have a structured brand approach that you go through from the strategy – and if you do that across every platform – you can create a core piece of music that reflects the brand and then build everything off the back of that.”

“That’s typically what we would do with big brands such as Microsoft. You build up a suite of sounds that builds equity with the audience every time they’re heard.”

And this method can be so effective that the listener doesn’t even have to be completely aware that it’s happening. In 1999 Robert Heath wrote a paper on low involvement processing, positing that advertising is still effective in scenarios where attention is divided and, in some cases, even more effective.

“This is where slogans, audio logos and jingles come into their own,” says Dickson.

“Audio makes low involvement processing even more effective. Ever learned the lyrics to a song without trying? That’s low involvement processing of audio in practice. What it means is that engagement isn’t the only metric.”

“If you have an audio logo that you are playing in low involvement scenarios regularly, you are building mental availability – brand fame – in your audience.”

“It wouldn’t be as targeted as a specific and detailed message, but it effortlessly binds itself into memory, putting your brand on the shorter, instinctive list of brands that ‘feel’ like a good choice.”

Future sounds

Now it’s just a case of convincing clients that there’s more to effective audio in advertising than a hummable tune.

“A lot of what we do as a business is thinking about the education process,” says Walsh. “What we’re talking about now is what we share with clients and it can often take some time before they say, ‘oh, now I understand the value of this investment and how it’s going to work for me.”

And as platforms come and go, new delivery systems proliferate and everything gets more personalised, expect audio to re-emerge as a preferred method of audience engagement.

“Think about something like virtual assistant Amazon Alexa. That’s an interface that you have in your home and operates as pure sound. That holds a lot of power for brands and more and more we’re thinking about that environment. It’s becoming more and more about those relationships and sound is going to be critical in that.”

  • This story is part of a content partnership with The Radio Bureau.

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