Sound design and marimbas

Yesterday I saw this 2016 video where two sound designers react and explain some of the world’s most recognizable sounds. Exactly a day before I had shown some of these sounds to some product design students and it is quite amazing how we are all so tuned into these auditory interfaces.

At some point on the vídeo, about the Marimba iPhone ring, they mention some research made in Bell Labs about the best parameters for a ring tone.

Looking for a bit more info, I found this article about this ringtone, and it says:

Scientists at Bell Laboratories, Human Factors Research Lab performed numerous studies on ringers, from buzzers to thumpers. They studied tonal quality and duration along with the decibel levels needed for the brain to recognized the call alert. They even tested the Grandpa to the iPhone “old phone” ringtone. In 1956, 300 research subjects in Crystal Lake, Illinois found the “musical tone ringer” to be “pleasant,” but took most test subjects over a week or so to get accustomed to it. However, when pressed, a majority of test subjects wanted the old bell ringer back. Not much has changed since from the days of the early Human Factors research, the brain still works the same, but the technology obviously allows for more finite control of the sounds a ringtone creates.

Ideally, a ring tone should register very clearly and distinctively in the audio range that is central to human hearing, from about 2 to 4 KHz, with a Dynamic range (quietest to loudest) of about 96 dB. Even though this audio range is quite crowded with a lot of sound, it is also precisely where most spoken languages carry a majority of phoneme distinction, and thus, we have evolved a relatively high level of sound discrimination central to this audio range.

For a ringtone to be decoded ideally by the brain, the timbre of the audio envelope ideally should pulse to a full dynamic range to nearly no sound with-in a 3 – 5 second cycle (Bell Labs Research). The relative amplitudes of the various harmonics primarily determine the timbre of instruments and sounds, though onset transients, formants, noises, and inharmonicities also play a role.


Iannis Xenakis’ notation

I don’t know much about music. Never had serious music formation, I have real trouble understanding some things. This means I never seriously reflected on many things I take for granted, like music notation.

I am reading “How music works” by David Byrne for several months now. It is not super engaging, but I am enjoying it immensly as I am learning a lot about music.

He speaks about the music notation we use in the west and how much room for interpretation does it leave. I knew there were different notations, but I don’t really know what are the pros and cons of each – still don’t.

He spoke about Iannis Xenakis and how he wrote his pieces and I was really impressed. He made all these lines and connections, and how each should behave in relation to another, and took so much space to do so! I am pro conventions, but to see someone doing things unconventionally is so refreshing! I loved this.

1 Coríntios 14


1 Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.

2 For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.

3 But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.

4 He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.

5 I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.

6 Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?

7 And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped?

8 For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?

9 So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.

10 There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.

11 Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.

12 Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.

13 Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.

14 For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.


1 Segui a caridade, e procurai com zelo os dons espirituais, mas, principalmente, o de profetizar.

2 Porque, o que fala língua estranha não fala aos homens, senão a Deus; porque ninguém o entende, e em espírito fala de mistérios.

3 Mas, o que profetiza fala aos homens para edificação, exortação e consolação.

4 O que fala língua estranha edifica-se a si mesmo; mas o que profetiza edifica a igreja.

5 E eu quero que todos vós faleis línguas estranhas, mas, muito mais, que profetizeis; porque, o que profetiza é maior do que o que fala línguas estranhas, a não ser que também interprete, para que a igreja receba edificação.

6 E agora, irmãos, se eu for ter convosco, falando línguas estranhas, que vos aproveitará, se vos não falar, ou por meio da revelação, ou da ciência, ou da profecia, ou da doutrina?

7 Da mesma sorte, se as coisas inanimadas, que fazem som, seja flauta, seja cítara, não formarem sons distintos, como se conhecerá o que se toca com a flauta ou com a cítara?

8 Porque, se a trombeta der sonido incerto, quem se preparará para a batalha?

9 Assim, também, vós, se com a língua não pronunciardes palavras bem inteligíveis, como se entenderá o que se diz? porque estareis como que falando ao ar.

10 Há, por exemplo, tanta espécie de vozes no mundo, e nenhuma delas é sem significação.

11 Mas se eu ignorar o sentido da voz, serei bárbaro para aquele a quem falo, e o que fala será bárbaro para mim.

12 Assim, também, vós, como desejais dons espirituais, procurai abundar neles, para edificação da igreja.

13 Pelo que, o que fala língua estranha ore, para que a possa interpretar.

14 Porque, se eu orar em língua estranha, o meu espírito ora, mas o meu entendimento fica sem fruto.

You Want a Social Life, with Friends

Sounded appropriate.

“You want a social life, with friends.
A passionate love life and as well
To work hard every day. What’s true
Is of these three you may have two
And two can pay you dividends
But never may have three.

There isn’t time enough, my friends–
Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends–
To find the time to have love, work, and friends.
Michelangelo had feeling
For Vittoria and the Ceiling
But did he go to parties at day’s end?

Homer nightly went to banquets
Wrote all day but had no lockets
Bright with pictures of his Girl.
I know one who loves and parties
And has done so since his thirties
But writes hardly anything at all.”

– Kenneth Koch

Of Men and Machines (1963)

A colleague shared with me the most interesting video from 1963, starring Paul Fits, presenting what was then called Human Engineering or Engineering Psychology. It’s an excellent explanation of the Human Factors’ work and goals:

“Engineering psychologists attempt to eliminate (such) confusion not by changing man’s habits, but by changing the machine. They attempt to discover how machines can be designed so that the machine will speak a language which man can understand.”

Paul Fitts