On The Music In Apple’s FaceTime Commercial

“Seeing music as a model could seem cold or trivializing. But the urgencies and the passions of living are among the things that music models: music doesn’t belong to the detached world of mathematical modeling. And there is nothing trivial about the musical enterprise: it is far removed from toy model airplanes or fashion models on runways. Certainly we are not consciously engaged in modeling when involved with music. Nobody turns on the stereo, kicks back and says, ‘Now for a little temporal modeling.’ If music is modeling at all, it is preconscious, participative, processual modeling: not the sort of model you stand back from and consider as you might a model to scale of the Colosseum in Rome. You live it.”
-David Burrows, Time and the Warm Body: A Musical Perspective on the Construction of Time, p.69.


A while ago I noticed a particularly affecting commercial for Apple’s iPhone FaceTime, a technology Apple describes as allowing us to “be in two places at once.” What struck me, besides the length of the ad (one-minute ads feel astonishingly long), was its music. After a few listens, it becomes clear that Apple continues to use sound in their branding work in a distinctly Apple way–specifically to convey a sense of wonder and enchantment that their mobile technology makes possible. I have written previously about the musical construction of wonder in Apple Siri commercials, and the sounds in this FaceTime ad are not so different style-wise. This time around, the music is the instrumental piece “Green” composed by Rob Simonsen. Simonsen has written music for other Apple iPhone 5 commercials, and co-wrote the score for the film 500 Days Of Summer with Mychael Danna. (A film filled with many of its own moments of musical wonder. It’s worth a listen.)

What can we say about Simonsen’s music? It’s scored for the familiar sound of the piano–not a grand piano sound, but more like a homey, old upright piano. The music is tonal and consonant, for the most part moving between E and A major triads. There’s some pedal and reverb to add ambiance and sparkle. It has a fast tempo, it’s repetitive with a steady-pulsed anchor pitch, and is fairly simple in its designs; it almost sounds improvised. It’s mostly in the mid and upper range of the piano. Finally, the rhythm has some groove about it: a slight swing lilt, and from the opening measure accentuation on the off-beats. All these qualities work to convey a sense of homespun wonder, clarity, and simplicity that Apple may want us to associate with its technological products. As one YouTube commenter and fan of the music astutely observes, the ad “makes you feel wistful and like you share in the human experience if you have an iPhone.”

There’s also a deeper subtext to this ad: connection. As the music flows along, the ad shows individuals fluidly connecting with one another–reaching out through the techno-mediation of their devices to capture and share a moment through video and audio. Just because we’re separated from one another in time and space doesn’t mean we can’t share a virtual experience of coming together. And what better way to model the feeling and affect of this experience of being “in two places at once”–an actual here and a virtual there–than to use music?

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