Interview: Joel Beckerman, Author Of 'The Sonic Boom' Joel Beckerman is a composer who specializes in sonic branding. His new book is called The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy.
NPR logo

From Sizzling Fajitas To The Super Bowl, How Sounds Help Sell

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
From Sizzling Fajitas To The Super Bowl, How Sounds Help Sell

From Sizzling Fajitas To The Super Bowl, How Sounds Help Sell

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Recognize this?


CORNISH: Or this?


CORNISH: How about this one?


CORNISH: That, of course, is NBC's Super Bowl theme music - before that, the network's news theme and the sonic signature of AT&T. All those sounds are lodged in our brains thanks to Joel Beckerman.

JOEL BECKERMAN: We're in this golden age of sound again. We have these amazing opportunities to be able to both set the tone and experiences for people - give them information in an instant. That's one of the things that sound can do if it's done very thoughtfully.

CORNISH: Beckerman is a composer who specializes in sonic branding. And we're not talking about jingles here. We're talking about sonic cues. You hear them in commercials, the ambient music and coffee shops, in the beeps, dings and whoosh that occasionally flies from your cell phone.

And companies are embracing it, as he explains in a new book "The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms The Way We Think, Feel, And Buy."

BECKERMAN: You think about sound really - there's sound that's foreground, which is meant to grab your attention. And you think about like a heralding thing like the Super Bowl for instance that I worked on with the John Williams theme. That's really front and center. It's heroic. It's supposed to grab your attention.

What's often interesting is when talk to people about this kind of thing and the work that we do - that we bring these things to people's attention. And then, you know, you can say to somebody look - and somebody could do this right now at home if they wanted to - hopefully, not if they're driving. But you can close your eyes right now and just listen. And you can identify those sounds that are in the foreground, that are in the background, that are in the mid-ground. And you start to get to know the soundscape of your life and everything that's happening around you in that given moment.

CORNISH: One fascinating example in the book is that of a restaurant sound. And it wasn't music. It wasn't a sonic signature. It was a sound just particular to something on the menu. Can you talk a little bit about it?

BECKERMAN: Well, if you can think about a restaurant chain that you are familiar with - at this restaurant chain somebody orders the signature dish. And the moment they order that signature dish and it is delivered to the table, they've already made 15 other orders of the same dish. And the reason is because of sound.

So imagine that the door bursts open with the server carrying a plate full of sizzling fajitas. Immediately, the sizzle is what everyone notices as the server brings that plate to the table.

CORNISH: And in the book, of course, you named this company as Chili's. And they begin to actually build branding and ads all around just the sound of fajitas. I mean, what is it about sound that makes you feel a story, as you've described in the book?

BECKERMAN: Well, there were a lot of other restaurants that serve fajitas. But what Chili's did is they perfected the drama. They perfected the theater of it. When you think about sound creating a story, it really is about sound creating surprise and anticipation because sound is the quickest sense. First, you hear it. Then immediately you see it. And then you smell it. Those senses altogether create something that is really magical and has so much more pull than that same experience without the sound.

CORNISH: Joel Beckerman, when I look into the future of the sound of branding, I feel like when I'm online, there's an awful lot of mute buttons. And I find myself turning all of these sounds off - like it contributes to this sense of like overwhelming kind of being pecked to death. It's death by a thousand little sounds. And where do you see the future for this kind of work?

BECKERMAN: I have to agree with you 100 percent. The problem is not that there's not enough sound in the world. It's that we are completely overrun with sound. My belief is that the vast majority of those reasons is because those sounds don't help you. They're intrusive. They get in your way. They annoy you. So, in the work that we do, the first thing we do is we try to pull all the sound out. We start, really, with a blank slate and then add just the sounds that benefit you.

Honestly, the reason I wrote this book was to start a movement saying that the sounds in our lives should elevate our experience. They should benefit us. And we should take charge of that. We should be aware of it.

So I want to apologize to listeners right now because the bottom line is once you start hearing about this stuff and you start being aware of these things like foreground, mid-ground, background sound and you start paying attention to this, you're going to hear it all the time.

But the good news is that you can take charge of this. So if you go into a store and you don't like the soundtrack, you can say to the supermarket manager you have to change the soundtrack, or I can't shop here. Or you can put on headphones and choose your own soundtrack.

We don't have to be victims of the soundtrack of our life. We, actually, can curate it. And that makes our lives better and, actually, the lives of everybody around us better.

CORNISH: Well, Joel Beckerman, thanks so much for talking with us.

BECKERMAN: Well, thank you.

CORNISH: Joel Beckerman, author of "The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms The Way We Think, Feel, And Buy" with Tyler Gray.


Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.