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Beckerman accepts an award for Most Performed Themes and Underscore from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 2011.


Do you fervently believe that less is more? Meet your soul mate, Joel Beckerman, a leading composer of sonic signatures — those little musical ditties that identify everything from TV networks to corporations and their products. They’re so brief they make a three-minute pop song seem like an opera, but sonic signatures represent the aural equivalent of the McDonald’s arches — instantly identifiable. A veteran musician and the founder/president of Man Made Music, a full-service sonic-branding agency, Beckerman started his career by producing, arranging and publishing demos for a New York recording studio in the early 1980s. From there, he wrote themes and “underscores” for television shows, then segued into developing sonic identities for television networks, including Showtime, HBO, ESPN and NBC (for which he helped reinvent the venerable three-note chime used by the network’s cable-television properties). He also helps large corporations like AT&T develop sonic identities. We talked to Beckerman about what sonic branding does, how he composes and what his own sonic signature would sound like.

American Way: What’s sonic branding all about?
Joel Beckerman: It strategically uses music and sound to help build brands. Brands have personalities, just like people, and we have to [communicate] that personality and tell its story. It’s all about an emotional connection.

AW: What makes a sonic signature effective?
JB: First, it must communicate the brand experience. It also must pop in the marketplace in which it competes. It should stand the test of time, too, not just get tied to a particular commercial. Last, it must be consistent across all the places that customers, employees and investors experience the brand.

AW: Is the composing process organic or scientific?
JB: It’s both, which is one reason I find it so fascinating. First, we gather lots of empirical information about a brand: how it differentiates itself, who its customers are and what’s most important to those customers. Then we find everything we can about it, try to understand its zeitgeist. Then we look at different sounds to determine the sonic vocabulary. After that, we get into the art of it — what sounds make sense for the story they want to tell.

AW: What’s the biggest challenge about this kind of composing?
JB: Distilling a great idea down to its essence and really getting deep inside the story you’re trying to tell musically — and not necessarily using the kind of music you like.

AW: What are your musical influences?
JB: I’m a variety junkie. I love classic jazz and electronic music. I’m a big fan of everybody from DJ Shadow and Moby to John Williams and The Meters to old bluegrass music and blues.

AW: Does it bother you that virtually no one knows you compose such familiar music and sounds?
JB: In some ways, I prefer the anonymity. It allows me to reinvent myself every day — there’s no expectation of what I should sound like.

It’s immensely liberating.

AW: What do you use to compose music?
JB: I usually sing into a recording device. I find instruments more limiting because you tend to go down the same path you did before.

AW: What would your sonic signature sound like?
JB: “Ohm” (Buddhist meditative sound) — ?something with simple singularity, just to get the music voices in my head to quiet down for a while.



Joel Beckerman’s
Playlist of Top Sonic Signatures

What makes a good sonic signature click?
Here is Joel Beckerman’s take on five prominent brands:

Apple: “That familiar ‘whoooosh’ sound lets you know your mail has been sent on any Apple device. It’s comforting, right?”

Intel: “Before ‘bum-bum-bum-bum,’ who knew Intel was inside the computer?”

Mercedes-Benz: “From the doors to the controls and warnings, everything sounds like a Mercedes.”

Nokia: “The ubiquitous ring tone, based on a Spanish composer’s guitar melody, is heard by 1.5 billion people per day. That’s lots of free advertising.”

Samsung: “The distinctive ‘power up’ chirp reminds you who makes your TV.”