“Everything is loud for games,” said Jean-Luc Cohen-Sinclair, an assistant professor of electronic production and design at the Berklee College of Music and New York University who has worked on games’ sound designs. “They’re designed to have ‘transient-rich’ sounds that have a ‘snappy attack’ — a quick, percussive buildup of energy, like someone snapping their fingers, as opposed to a fading note on a violin.”
Why can you so often overhear other people’s games? Prof. Cohen-Sinclair said that designers accentuate the midrange sound frequency, which translates best to earbuds and small speakers, and to which humans are most sensitive. Because mobile games often compete with external noise, they also contain louder sounds that often carry beyond the player’s earbuds.
Constant earbud and headphone use and high-decibel public venues have led to hearing loss (the World Health Organization estimates that over one billion teenagers and young adults are at risk), forcing listeners to crank up the volume even more. And, of course, there is the occasional altruist who eschews earbuds altogether and generously allows others to share in the melodious sounds of his game, music or video.
We tend to think of visual stimuli as the dominant forces of distraction in modern culture, but sounds too make bids on our attention in the raucous marketplace of noise. Moreover, we have been conditioned physiologically to respond to these auditory cues with dopamine spikes, especially when the alert is for the reward-based feedback of social media validation. It’s hard to be nonreactive to the sound of an incoming text or new Twitter follower.
Something similar was certainly at play with the ringing landline of yesteryear, but phone calls come at a far slower pace, take more time and rarely involve the caller (let alone hundreds of them) affirming how much they “like” you.
Digital brands have developed imprinting strategies that pander to our shorter sonic attention spans. Television and film networks and production companies have always had audio signatures so long as there have been so-called talkies; think of the fanfare accompanying the iconic 20th Century Fox logo, the growling lion of MGM, the three-tone chime of NBC.
Contrast those with the popular networks of the cable and streaming age. HBO has long begun its shows with a television zapping onto a static field that resolves into an ethereal hum. Netflix has a four-second double timpani strike followed by a wash of strings. Amazon Originals offerings start with a whooshing, revolving sound and conclude with a series of vibrant chimes. The new 21st Century Fox logo forgoes the orchestral arrangement and ends in a series of R2D2-like bleeps.
Whereas the old guard privileged pleasing musicality or organic sounds and tried to create distinctive signatures that somehow represented their brand, the new wave seems primarily concerned with securing the viewer’s attention immediately, at a minimum of time, through jarring, synthesized noises that are ultimately interchangeable with those of other companies.
“It’s a ruthlessly corporate way of trying to coerce the attention of the viewer,” said Paul Grimstad, a writer and composer in New York who has scored a number of films. “The scale of attention asked of the viewer for a Netflix episode is comparably smaller than the grand cinematic experience the 20th Century Fox orchestral fanfare sets you up for.”
Many digital sound effects, such as the camera shutter, can be classified as “skeuomorphs,” or imitation objects that unnecessarily use ornamental design features of the originals (such as fake stitching on pleather seats). Their ubiquity suggests a postmodern aural backdrop in which the artificial is increasingly replacing the real. For people who grew up hearing only the real sounds, the new distinctions are likely clearer.
“Someone who’s 80 and someone who’s 12 are going to have different responses to a sound,” said Will Mason, a visiting professor of music theory at Oberlin. But the 12-year-old isn’t necessarily at a disadvantage, he said: “We want to privilege the real sounds over the synthesized ones, and we want to think a shift to a landscape characterized by these ‘artificial sounds’ is a dystopian element. But I wonder why it is that we want to call it dystopian. There seems to be some knee-jerk, intuitive way in which that’s the default stance and in which the real is preferable.”
One reason, aside from our longstanding skepticism over synthetic imitations, may be the preponderance of malevolent or duplicitous artificial intelligence voices in science fiction, from HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey” to Samantha in the 2013 film “Her.” Most of us now have our own HALs and Samanthas in the form of Siri and other virtual phone assistants, which, though rudimentary at this point, should eventually approach the fluency of their fictional forebears. Their speech-simulation abilities, along with their mobility, are helping acculturate us to a future in which public spaces are flooded with digitized and recorded voices on top of all the dings and chimes to which we have grown accustomed.
For years the only automated announcement familiar to New York City subway riders was “Stand clear of the closing doors, please,” but now there is a suite of them to replace previously garbled live messages. The new ones include the well-known imperative urging passengers to be on the lookout for packages left on the train — a common-sense post-9/11 safety announcement, to be sure, but also one that suggests our growing comfort with a surveillance state in which people regard one another with suspicion yet tolerate unseen but heard government and corporate oversight.
As we blithely send our personal data to companies on a whoosh and a bleep, we think less and less about hearing so many other disembodied and artificial noises in the background. We may not love Big Brother, but seem to be O.K. with his cacophonous little siblings.