The creative history behind “earcons”

Earcons -- the little noises machines make to communicate with users -- seem simple, but they’re actually incredibly complex.


January 3, 2018

Human: “Alexa, play my favorite song.”

Alexa: *Boo-doop* “Playing ‘Hey, Soul Sister’ by Train.”

Alexa’s little noises, and others like it, may seem arbitrary, but they’re actually very important, decades-old audio cues called “earcons.”

In fact, these seemingly simple (yet excruciatingly complex) beeps and dings are straight up robot languages that help shape the way we communicate.

The most famous of them all? The Windows ’95 startup earcon

Composed by Brian Eno, this short melodic landscape may seem simple enough — but perfecting a futuristic 6-second jingle that embodies an entire company’s ethos is no easy task.

Just ask Austrian composer Walter Werzowa, who took on the formidable challenge of creating the five-note audio-face of computer processor giant, Intel. His job? To create “tones that evoked innovation, troubleshooting skills, and the inside of a computer…”

He clearly understood how to do this: the tune was listed as the #2 most addictive sound in the world back in 2010.

Earcons are becoming even more mainstream

Hard to believe, but these sounds have become more prevalent with each technological belt-notch. In Nokia’s heyday, their signature ring was heard around 1.8B times a day. That was in 2009.

Jump to 2019, earcons will be taking yet another giant sci-fi leap forward as the US auto industry will have to start making sure their quiet electric cars “make audible noise” below 19 MPH.

Elon Musk: “Alexa, call Diplo!”

Alexa: *Boo-doop*

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