Sonic Mnemonics

Sonic Mnemonics

It was a few years ago I first came across the term ‘sonic mnemonic’. ‘The dab of shit’ was how we politely referred to it back then. 3 seconds of audio gunk ruining the previous 27 of crafted writing.

The account man informed us the client had spunked £4 million on getting the rights to the 5-note ditty, so it was a mandate. Our baby was ruined.

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Not only was it a dab of shit, it was the last stinking thing the listener heard. A bit like going to see Stone Roses … and on your way out the PA plays Rick Astley… the aural odour staying with you all the way home.

Things have moved on a bit since then. But not necessarily for the good. Sonic logos are are big business. Those 3-5 secs at the end of your commercial could apparently make or break a brand.

It seems everyone should have one. It’s not just big blue chip clients that crowbar them onto their ads. Estate agents, plumbers et al seem to want a sonic logo in the hope it’ll get more custom. 

Do they work?

Creatively I’d say no – at least almost never.

Imagine the scene...

You’ve just penned and shot the latest Nike extravaganza. It’s a 2-minute epic, £4m budget…is there something missing?  How about 5 totally random notes played on a kid’s xylophone? Yep that’ll do it. Look out Cannes. 

To date, I’ve not spotted a Honda or John Lewis or Harvey Nicks with a sonic logo concluding their Grand Prix winning spot. Granted there’s been ironic ones – the Old Spice’s whistle comes to mind, but they are few and far between. 

If you really have to have one, it’s got to be right for the brand.

A man who knows a bit about sound…award winning sound designer Munzie Thind at GCRS:

“Audio Mnemonics have a place in advertising. As humans we can identify a brand from just a few notes on a piano i.e. the Intel bong or McDonalds whistle - so in some cases if it’s done right it can be as good for a brand as visual branding, such as McDonalds golden arches or the Nike tick.”

But it is incredibly hard to get right.


Munzie again: “It can go horribly wrong. Mazda’s ‘Zoom Zoom’ or Ford's terrible guitar mnemonic from a few years back weren’t the finest. I actually helped get rid of the Ford one and replaced it with something more pleasing to the ear.”

The McDonald’s whistle and Intel bongs seem to work because they’re hard-wired to the brand.

Intel is a huge tech company so the futuristic 4-note sequence (created by Walter Werzowa who apparently updates it every year) feels right.


And likewise for McDonald’s, the chirpy 5-note sequence perfectly reflects the brand’s populist personality.

Of course some audio mnemonics are utterly brilliant. They’re just not in advertising.

The Close Encounters 5 note sequence

The phone from Our Man Flint.

John Williams’s ominous theme from Jaws.

All evoke powerful memories, not just reminding us of those key moments in the movie, but they also bring back the true essence of the film and the era when you watched it. 

My mate’s mum used to sing three notes up the stairs, which always meant only one thing – dinner was on the table. A happy childhood memory.

One of the most famous (and amusing) briefs was given to Brian Eno. It apparently included a list of around 150 adjectives that the company wanted to convey, and ended with ‘…and no more than 3.8 seconds long’. The resulting sonic logo for Windows was a bit meh. And that’s being kind.

If Brian can’t nail it, maybe let’s just leave it alone?

Open plan man

Open plan man