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The sound of an icon

Posted by Olivia Howlett - Head of Audio Branding at PHMG on

In August, it was revealed that Big Ben’s great bell would cease to chime for the next four years as the tower undergoes extensive renovation. More than just a clock, Big Ben’s reassuring bong has become not just an icon of London, but of audio. So in the wake of this silencing, we’re taking a look at what the absence of Big Ben’s chime will mean – and what it takes for one sound to strike such a chord with listeners.  

Elizabeth Tower, or Big Ben as it’s more commonly known, has become one of the UK’s most famous and celebrated landmarks, chiming throughout the day as Londoners and tourists pass through the capital. The bong is completely engrained in British culture, sounding to welcome a new year; to honour our fallen soldiers on Remembrance Sunday; and at the start of the ITV news at 10 broadcast every single weekday. It’s so fondly thought of that the news of its four-year silence has attracted a lot of media attention – and some public anger. Commons officials who approved the restoration argued that they didn’t think “anyone would care”, but the widespread reaction has proven to be quite the opposite. Crowds gathered around Parliament to hear the final set of bongs on August 21st – verifying just what an effect the absence of this distinctive sound will have on the city.

Big Ben’s recognisable sound is not the only one to have struck a chord with people around the world – there are many snippets of audio from the worlds of technology, telecommunications and gaming that have had an enduring impact on listeners. American sound company THX’s audio trademark is one of the most easily-identified sounds in the world, and is heard by millions daily in cinemas across the globe. Their signature Deep Note has an almost disconcerting quality, causing the listener to sit back and prepare themselves for the film to begin. The characteristic synthesized crescendo is complemented by their tagline ‘see you on the other side’ – signalling the start of an overall sensory journey that’ll transport them to another universe.  

One of the most common places to find distinct sounds is on mobile phones – with Apple being the masters of creating audio longevity. From the text tone to the default Marimba ring, iPhones are full of sounds that have become part of our daily lives. The latter was developed after extensive research into the sounds that divert peoples’ attention most quickly. The tone moves from its quietest level to the loudest in less than five seconds – which has been proven to be the most effective way to alert and distract a user. And despite both these sounds being part of a range of available message and ring tones, it’s rare to find an Apple user that has strayed from these two distinct defaults. They’ve become an indicator of the Apple brand – and a further symbol of status that comes from having the latest technology.

Whether a sound becomes recognisable for reasons of repeated exposure, due to the science behind the audio or because of the brand it’s attached to, it’s clear we take them to heart. As Big Ben’s silencing has exemplified, when such sounds are taken away from us, the impact can be felt around the world – illustrating just how much sound is a part of our lives.

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