“Music’s ability to conceal its processes and to communicate nothing/everything ‘directly’ is largely responsible for its peculiar power and prestige in society.”
– Susan McClary and Robert Walser, “Start Making Sense!: Musicology Wrestles with Rock.”
Every once in a blue moon I watch a TV commercial that stops me, holds my attention, and generates the semblance of real feeling. For instance, I have written here before about ads by Apple and Rolex that pack a punch. Recently I enjoyed the minute-long “Inspire Imagination” commercial for Lego toys. (Ahh, Lego. I love Lego.) The ad depicts a young girl playing with Lego as she imagines various occupations and carries out various tasks–from being a doctor and flying a helicopter to guiding a hamster through a maze and putting on a shadow puppet show. The girl is alone in each scene, yet clearly engaged with her Lego-enabled activities. Near the end of the ad we hear her say, in a voice over, “You taught me how to think, and how to dream.” The girl is addressing her proud mom, yet she’s also referring to her Lego.
The Lego ad is popular, in part because it promotes creativity, and also gender equality by showing a girl with what has often been assumed to be a boy’s toy. (Lego was pioneering in this regard. Check out this “Dear Parents” manifesto they included with their toys in the early 1970s.) On Twitter and YouTube, viewers have praised the ad, calling it “empowering,” “inspirational,” and “melancholy.”
What held my attention while watching was the soundtrack. Created by an advertising agency called Cut & Run, the music is the main source of the ad’s affective power, and helps construct viewers’ sensation of empowerment, inspiration, and melancholy. Let’s take a listen:
The music is simple. Scored for a close-mic’d acoustic piano, with bits of acoustic guitar and long string tones in the background, it consists of arpeggios around two chords: an A-flat major triad with a 6th added, followed by a c-minor triad. If we consider the key to be A-flat major, what we hear is a I-iii chord progression, over and over again. On top of this, in a higher register, the right hand of the piano part plays a fleeting melody that emphasizes the fifth, fourth, and third notes of the A-flat scale. The overall sound is reminiscent of Erik Satie’s moody Gymnopedie pieces; it also evokes the romantic-minimalist sound of Michael Nyman, some Thomas Newman film scores, and the intimate electronica of Helios. (Who, curiously enough, created his own take on minimalist Philip Glass’s Truman Show film score for an Apple commercial.) In short, this piano music has a familiar ring to it, and hearing it we kind of know how to feel.
The music works on two main levels. First, there are those two chords. Every major scale has within it three major chords, three minor chords, and one diminished chord. The Lego chord progression–moving from a chord built on the root or first note of the A-flat scale, to a chord built on the third note of the scale–is inherently happy-sad sounding, because it moves from a major chord to a minor one. So, in a sense this progression encapsulates the music’s sense of melancholy. The I and iii Lego chords also share two notes: C and E-flat. As they are arpeggiated in the ad, the C in particular keeps insistently popping out of the arpeggio, bobbing to the surface of the chords. The C seems energized, empowered and inspired to both keep the rhythm going and act as a glue between the happy and sad I and iii chords.
The music also conjures feeling through that piano sound. For a long time now, the piano has been the ultimate symbol of the middle-class home and of having the financial means, time, and space to take music lessons and practice. The instrument might also be coded as having a feminine sound. In the Lego ad, we never see the young girl playing piano, but we might imagine her being able to play something like this two-chord progression. Finally, the piano sound is an acoustic touchstone that we can relate to as the sound of an instrument that many of us learned to play–a little or a lot–when we were children. Its resonance and warmth suggests an interior world of thinking, imagination, and creativity.
Which brings us back to what makes this commercial empowering, inspirational, and melancholy. The music doesn’t signify these qualities, but it evokes them by gesturing in their general direction through its notes and its timbre to help us feel. As the saying goes, with music, it’s all about the vibe. There is nothing remarkable about a girl playing with Lego, and here the music simply reminds us of the fact that the toy can spark wonder in girls too.
For a few years now I’ve noticed TV commercials using the voices of well-known actors to advertise services and products. I started paying attention to these voices during the 2012 Summer Olympics. It was an ad for VISA, and the reassuring, trustworthy voice was that of Morgan Freeman:
There are other examples too. In an Esurance ad, we hear the voice of John Krasinski, better known as the character Jim from the NBC show, The Office.
In a Verizon ad, we hear the voice of Ty Burrell, better known as the character Phil Dunphy from the ABC show, Modern Family.
And in a TD Bank ad, we hear the voice of Matt Damon, best known as, well, Matt Damon.
I don’t generally pay attention to what is advertised in these ads–credit cards, telephone service, and banking services aren’t exactly in the sweet spot of my range interests and expertise.
But I do notice voices because voices contain so much subtle information that is impossible not to register. (Is sound more subliminally powerful that visual stimuli?) Listening to the ads I find myself thinking about how strongly voices signify different things and telegraph different affects out into the world. I don’t know Freeman, Kasinski, Burrell, or Damon, but I know their voices. In fact, their voices are familiar enough to me and millions of others through the characters these actors have played in films and on television that it feels as though on some level I/we actually do know them. Here, familiar sound nudges us towards trust. Trust the voice, trust the services and products.
What’s interesting in this regard is how the voices of these actors somehow aggregate together in my imagination into a single meta-voice of a character who is reliable, trustworthy, responsible, smart and a little knowing too (wink wink). Such is the power of sound that even though we don’t see the actors’ faces in the ads, their voices still manage to telegraph a sense of good sense. As I said, I don’t have any particular interest in the companies on whose behalf Freeman’s, Kasinski’s, Burrell’s, and Damon’s voices are speaking, yet the sounds draw me in with reassurance that at least in the case of VISA, Esurance, Verizon, or TD Bank–everything is, or will continue to be, smooth sailing.
Now that’s a sound sales pitch!
I have written previously on this blog about the musical construction of wonder and enchantment in Apple commercials. (You can read the posts here, here, and also over here.) What I like about those ads is how their evocative soundtracks convey the humanity that Apple wants us to feel is either inherent in their products (a laptop, an iPhone, or the sensibilities of Siri, Apple’s voice technology) or elicited in the social experiences the products enable. Apple’s latest commercial, the “Your Verse” iPad Air ad, is similar to the company’s earlier ones. This time around, we are shown numerous scenes of the iPad in action, accompanying creatives in the field–whether they be outdoor photographer, scientist, filmmaker, musician, designer, coach, storm chaser, artist, or writer.
The soundtrack features an audio sample of Robin Williams in the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society speaking some inspirational lines about the power of poetry. “Poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for” his character says with vigor at one point in the ad. Supporting Williams’ inspired speech is music that sounds like one long d minor chord played in washes of shifting arpeggios by orchestral strings and woodwinds. The name of the piece is “Awareness” by New Zealand film composer Hanan Townshend. The music was first used in Townshend’s soundtrack to the 2013 Terrence Malick film To The Wonder.
On its own, “Awareness” at first listen wouldn’t seem to be ideally suited for signifying a sense of wonder over the technological sublime. At least compared to the soundtracks in other Apple commercials which are more harmonically involved. But on repeated listens I realized that the music’s static drone quality could be heard as conveying some kind of steady ecstatic sensibility embodied by people deeply into their work with their iPads. Also, all those skittering arpeggios could be heard as an analog to the creative restlessness of the people in the ad.
Well, maybe. But it’s hard to know for sure just how the music is working in this commercial. If I listen like most people though, I can say that my attention is monopolized by Williams’ inspirational words and the dramatic outdoor settings. I have to focus on the music to even think about what it might be doing. This fact in turn perhaps provides a clue about what is going on here. Sometimes music is a subliminal force, an invisible guiding hand. Subtle and tinkering in the background of our attention, music plays a supporting role, shaping how we construct our worlds, and reinforcing the feelings we’re already feeling.
“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?
While overdosing on Wimbledon 2012 TV coverage over the past few weeks, I noticed a recurring ad for Rolex watches that features Roger Federer. In the 30-second spot the narrator begins by asking “When is greatness achieved?” as we see a montage of Federer’s milestone wins throughout his career interspersed with still shots of him staring into the camera. As one viewer of the ad on YouTube puts it, it’s a pretty epic piece–a great tennis champion plus a great watch. A perfect endorsement too, though in some ways it’s not entirely clear who is endorsing who.
What really makes this Rolex ad epic though, is its music, assembled by Beetroot Music, an English music production company. As music goes, the core of the piece is quite simple, consisting of just three chords over eight measures in the key of f minor, with each chord held for four beats (or one measure of 4/4 time). Here are the chords:
f minor (i chord in f minor)
D-flat major (VI chord, 1st inversion)
C major (V chord, 1st inversion)
f minor (i chord)
D-flat major (VI chord)
C major (v chord, 1st inversion)
f minor (i chord)
f minor (i chord)
The chords are arpeggiated on piano and joined by a pulsating string section. (In older versions of the ad, there is also a booming backbeat–ah, nothing so subtle as classical music with a backbeat!) But as compelling as the spare instrumental arrangement for this 30-second spot is, the ad’s epic quality is primarily signified and suggested through the chords themselves. Let’s take a closer listen.
The first thing to note is that Rolex’s epic sound world is grounded in a minor key–in this case, f minor. Very briefly, in the history of Western concert music going back many hundreds of years, minor keys have long been synonymous with sadness, heaviness, a sense of longing, foreboding, and so on. Basically, a minor key is used to convey the opposite of a major key, which generally speaking is all about happy, brightness, and optimism. Of course, I’m generalizing about the range of meanings inherent in major and minor chords (and meanings are never inherent in anything musical anyway), plus there are a lot of grey areas too. For instance, one can freely mix and match major and minor chords, putting one after another in a sequence called a chord progression. In other words, context is everything in music, and a major chord can sound very differently after a minor chord and vice versa. Also, a simple major or minor chord consists of a triad with three notes–a root note, plus an interval of a third and a fifth above that root. But other intervals can be added on as well, giving major or minor triads very different favors. With added notes, minor is no longer simply sad and major simply happy; the extra tones can make the chords feel emotionally more complex. You can hear this emotional complexity in jazz among many other places.
Having said this, the music in the Rolex commercial doesn’t inhabit any grey areas at all: it’s just straight ahead triads, albeit with a few inversions thrown in to make the chord progression seem more elaborate than it in fact is. So then, the second thing to note about Rolex’s epic sound world besides its use of one minor chord and two major chords in the key of f minor, is its chord progression. Chord progressions have been the basis of Western music–classical as well as popular–for a very long time too. Chord progressions are what create a sense of the music “going somewhere.” The music isn’t actually going anywhere besides traveling through the chords one at a time, of course, but such is the neurological wiring and enculturation of the human imagination that we really feel like the music is taking us on a journey. The Rolex chord progression, while brief, packs a wallop because the i – VI – V – i sequence has such a rich history in our listening lives. We’ve heard it used many, many times without realizing it. It also affects us because the dynamics between its chords are so entrenched in those little movements by one semitone (e.g. the fifth of the i chord moving up to the fifth of VI in 1st inversion, and the third of the V chord moving back to root if the i chord). If you don’t believe me, flip the minor chord to major and the major chords to minor and listen again. I assure you the progression will feel differently.
Perhaps because of its history of heavy use and the dynamics among its major and minor parts, this chord progression continues to speak to us–even when we don’t quite know what is being spoken and how. In fact, the viewer comments on YouTube suggest that Rolex commissioned just the right music to subliminally convey a sense of what the brand is all about: luxury, achievement, precision, pedigree and class. Thus, a viewer named awe4cs asks about the music “Can someone say what’s the name of this ÜBER song?” This sentiment is echoed by others: mrvishal1000 calls the music “epic” and Katherineli notes “There’s so much class in this it’s ridiculous.” Finally, warLock21x speaks of Federer–but perhaps unwittingly too of the 100-year old watch company and the chord progression of the music–as being “of divine descent”.
Here, then, is the commercial:
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.
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.”