“Where Are We?”: Situating Wonder Through Music In Apple Siri Commercials

by Thomas Brett


wonder — (1): rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience; (2) : a feeling of doubt or uncertainty

Is there anything the Apple iPhone can’t do? And for that matter, is there anything Siri, the phone’s voice activated seer, doesn’t know? Recently I happened to be in Brooklyn early one morning and asked Siri where the nearest coffee shop was. She found a half-dozen places within a few blocks and with a glance down at their respective customer reviews (I love reading reviews, remember?) I was off and running. Siri was spot on too: the café was awesome and its croissants of the first rank.

I’ve learned about the kinds of things one can ask Siri not through trial and error–I keep meaning to experiment with questions yet never seem to have pressing ones in need of answering–but through Apple iPhone magazine ads and TV commercials. For example, on the back page of the March 5 New Yorker, there’s an ad that shows the iPhone in a well-manicured man’s hand providing the answer to a question the man has just asked. The question was “How do I play a B Major scale?” and Siri’s answer is graphic–showing the notes of the B Major scale as they are written on a treble clef and as they would be played on a keyboard. Impressive. Though I have to wonder why a musician would need this information, or how a non-musician could ever possibly benefit from knowing this particular bit of music theory. (And it’s incomplete music theory too, because Siri doesn’t show how the B major key signature is notated.) So the question was a strange one, but its answer certainly shows off Siri’s musical range.

Inspired by this ad, I asked Siri “How do I play a polyrhythm” and she asked me if I’d mind connecting to the Internet? (Do I have a choice?) Once I assented she brought up some Google results, the first of which was a strange YouTube video in which a spaced-out looking piano teacher awkwardly demonstrates his method for playing a two beats against three beats polyrhythm (using the mnemonic “not-di-ffi-cult–not-di-ffi-cult…”). Below this video was the Wikipedia entry on polyrhythm. Not bad, I guess, though I was hoping Siri would be the one doing the explaining in that cool clinical voice of hers. I guess the technology isn’t that advanced yet.

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In the Siri TV commercials we see folks out and about, relying on Siri to answer all kinds of questions and help make things happen. For example, in the “Road Trip” commercial we follow a young couple taking a cross-country adventure from a frigid east coast to sunny Santa Cruz, CA. Along the way, Siri fields questions about driving routes, Kansas city BBQ joints, the meaning of life (“Where are we?”), the size of the Grand Canyon, gas station locations, and star constellations. What an informed companion!

What really struck me about the ads though, was their background music. After hearing it a few times I had an idea of the sense it intended to convey: wonder. Wonder at the strange and portable technological miracle that is the smartphone and its voice recognition functionality. Below is the “Road Trip” commercial (just one of several). Try to listen closely: the music is low in the overall mix, but it works to conjure a very particular sensation of awe:

This background music is the song “Orchestral–Goldengrove v2″ by Keith Kenniff, an American composer and multi-instrumentalist who records ambient electronic music under the monikers Helios and Goldmund. (I used to listen to Helios quite a bit.) The piece musically constructs a sense of wonder through its chord progression, its layered and shifting harmonic dissonances, its bubbling arrangement of piano and orchestral instruments (woodwinds, strings, celeste), and its open-ended 6-beat meter that hints at a two against three polyrhythm. (Polyrhythm is always a wonder if you ask me.)  Here’s the piece:

“Orchestral–Goldengrove v2″ not only conjures a sense of wonder, but also a sense of the American classical composer Philip Glass. The rhythmically churning arrangement of arpeggiating chords recalls Glass’s score for the 1982 silent film Koyaanisqatsi whose subject matter is not the wonders of contemporary urban life but rather its drudgery, emptiness and lack of balance. But more to the point, the commercial sounds a lot like Glass’s music for the 1998 movie The Truman Show. Here’s that music:

And this is where things get interesting. Glass’s Truman Show theme is based on a sequence of four chords that repeat over and over (until 1:16 where the music moves into another section). The chords are, to my ear: f minor, d-flat major, a-flat major, and C major. Interestingly, this is exactly the same chord sequence (albeit in a different key and at a faster tempo) heard over and over in the first minute of Keniff’s “Goldengrove v2″ and the main reason the two pieces sound so similar. So, is this just a musical coincidence? Or were the creators of the Siri commercial deliberately going for a Philip Glass effect to convey the sense of wonder? Indeed, a casual listener might well confuse the two pieces on the basis of the chords alone. They’re that similar.

In case you didn’t know, a chord sequence on its own can’t be copyrighted. The reason being that chords–clusters of pitches played at the same time like the notes c, e, and g make a C Major chord–are the generic building blocks of a piece of music that can be combined in many, many different ways. It’s only once you combine a chord sequence with a melody then you have something distinctive and copyrightable. Glass’s piece has a melody that meanders around the notes of those four chords, and remarkably, Keniff’s “Goldengrove v2″ seems to copy that too. (If you listen again to Keniff’s piano part at 0:34-0:50 you can hear it picking out the same first few notes as Glass’s tune before it veers elsewhere.) What’s going on here? Are we just listening too closely? Or was some secret licensing deal forged behind the scenes, guiding the musical textures in the commercial? Oh the unanswered questions!

But the irony of what appears to be a kind of musical appropriation in the Siri commercial is not lost on astute TV viewers out there listening closely. For example, on the website http://www.osxdaily.com a commenter named elesiumfilm theorizes on what this kind of musical appropriation illuminates about our relentless consumption of technology in the pursuit of wonder:

“This advert horrifies me, exactly because of the music. It’s an almost EXACT rip-off of part of the Truman Show soundtrack, and I find it amazingly ironic that music from a film about a man whose life is completely faked by entertainment corporations is being taken off to advertise technology that encourages people to live their whole lives through the filter of a little screen–chillingly ironic.”

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