It's only a few seconds long, but there's a lot of science that goes into that little Intel Corp. jingle, the one that always shows up at the end of the computer company's ads.
Known as the Intel "bong"(as in, bong-BONG, bong-BONG!) the notes represent the four syllables in company's slogan, Intel Inside. (We can pause for a moment while you hum it to yourself.)
As commercial jingles go, the Intel bong is Stairway to Heaven . Played in more than 130 countries, it's the most-heard commercial mnemonic going. On average, the bong appears somewhere on Earth every five minutes, either in the company's own ads or in commercials for products using Intel's technology.
But there's another note - the often-overlooked fifth bong in the Intel ads. It's a long note that precedes the four staccato Intel-Inside chimes. "That's the palate cleanser," says Walter Werzowa, the 48-year-old Vienna-born composer who masterminded the jingle in 1991, after a career in scoring movies.
The first note is a throwaway; just there to clear the mind of whatever noise came before, so the brain is ready to hear and, more importantly, to remember the jingle that follows. "It's extremely thought out," he says in a thick Austrian accent that ads to his composer persona, like talking to Mozart on the phone. "There is this initial energy burst which closes off whatever sound was there before. It prepares you for the melody, then the melody comes in."
He is the guru of audio branding. His company, Los Angeles-based Musikvergnuegen, counts names like Samsung, Toyota, Vodaphone and LG on its long list of clients. So when Montreal's Astral Media Inc. needed an audio brand of its own, its search inevitably led to MusikV, as the studio is known in the L.A. parlance (the company's full name is German for "the pleasure of music.")
A few years ago, Astral had a branding conundrum. The media company, which owned specialty television channels and radio stations in Quebec and Ontario, had just acquired 52 radio stations from Standard Broadcasting and was now a national chain stretching from Truro, N.S., to Prince Rupert, B.C. But Astral's brands were a largely unknown commodity in many parts of the country.
There was little linking the company's radio stations to its TV brands, which would soon expand to include HBO Canada and Playhouse Disney. And in markets such as B.C. and Alberta, the company was introducing itself for the first time to many audiences. Alain Bergeron, Astral's vice-president of brand management, figured the company needed an audio handshake: memorable, but not intrusive. "We spoke to a lot of firms in Canada and the U.S. and decided on Walter," Mr. Bergeron says.
As he did with Intel, Mr. Werzowa went for simplicity and concocted a four-note signature for Astral, a whistle. The notes rise up quickly before cresting in a short arc, which creates an optimistic, happy sound. "The mnemonic had a smile," Mr. Werzowa says. But the whistle was only a temporary solution. Though it worked regardless of market, its strength was also its weakness: It was too generic.
Since Astral's media properties range from children's TV to classic rock and country radio, the whistle didn't speak to any of those audiences specifically. Mr. Bergeron's idea was to take it and remix it, several times, for each audience, a project that launched this spring. Mr. Werzowa was used to doing one jingle at a time, but Astral wanted 11 variations. This became his biggest project. "No one had done that before, so we were walking in virgin territory," Mr. Bergeron says.
Though it sounds easy, the new project was essentially the sonic branding equivalent of covering the Beatles, where new variations could ruin the sound. Play the same notes on a different instrument and there's a chance the audience won't recognize one jingle from the next, ruining the branding strategy.
"It doesn't always work. I've heard versions of [the Beatles'] Yesterday where you can barely recognize the melody," Mr. Werzowa says.
So the composer gathered a host of studio musician friends from LA, including guitar players who recorded with Nine Inch Nails and classically trained artists, and went to work. Playhouse Disney needed a children's sound, so the composer employed a plunking piano, glockenspiels and a toy xylophone. The news and talk radio stations needed something more serious - and urgent - resulting in a medley of pounding drums and a clock-tower bell. And the easy-listening stations had to have a sound that was, well, easy, so a soft acoustic guitar gently plucked the four-note jingle. (To hear the versions, visit astralmedia.com/audioslogos).
The hardest variation to pull off was the jingle for Astral's country stations. With every version Mr. Bergeron brought back to the station managers, the programmers wrinkled their noses. Audiences wouldn't go for it, they said. Mr. Werzowa soon figured out why.
"Most of the country music today, if you take the vocals out, it sounds like rock. So if you use the indigenous country music instruments - the fiddle, banjo, slide guitar - it sounds too yee-haw," he says. Several remakes later, the Austrian arrived at the right formula, a foot-stomping, drum-supported electric guitar twang that now plays on stations like 101.1 The Farm FM in Brandon, Man.
The early response to the jingles is promising, but Mr. Bergeron said he's not going to survey their impact on the company's brand recognition until people have had more time to hear them. "It needs to play," Mr. Bergeron says. "I think if we give it some time, we'll be happy with the result."
The cost of working with MusikV is about the price of producing a TV commercial. But the key to any successful jingle is airplay. Sonic branding works if the ditty can embed itself in people's minds. With that in mind, Astral plans to get a lot of mileage out of its 11 jingles, playing them at least once an hour on TV and radio.
"With mnemonics, you really need to know what you are doing," says Mr. Werzowa, who studied film at the University of Southern California and built a résumé scoring movies before working on the Intel campaign. "There is science - you can predict certain things in music - then there is this other part, the art, and nobody knows why it works."
And in the time it takes for Mr. Werzowa to describe that process, the Intel bong has played five more times somewhere in the world.