The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy

  • Joel Beckerman with Tyler Gray
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 208 pp.

Hear that? According to this engaging new book, it’s all part of the plan.

A friend who’s an avid Washington Nationals fan says she thinks that one of the hardest things about being in the big leagues these days must be choosing your “walk-on” music — the personalized musical excerpt greeting hometown players when they come to bat, intended both to fire up the crowd and intimidate the opponents. 

Author Joel Beckerman would almost surely agree. In The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy, he advocates for personal and corporate soundtracks and does his best to convince readers that hearing is far and away the most important of our senses.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words,” he says, “then the right sound at the right moment is worth a thousand pictures.”

Ironically, at least at the time of this review, there’s no audiobook version of The Sonic Boom. But Beckerman conjures up plenty of powerful sounds to help make his points — our own individual ringtones, the sizzle of fajitas, the (fake) clanging of money pouring out of a slot machine, the whoosh of an email successfully dispatched.

He also looks at what happens when sounds don’t ring true (canned applause) and when they aren’t what we expect (electric cars). You can take the scariness out of a horror movie by simply turning off the sound, he says, because that’s where most of the tension is.

On the other hand, Beckerman notes, absolute silence can be terrifying, too: Disney experimented with it at the Tower of Terror in its Tokyo theme park and decided the effect was too intense. Disney, in fact, has a long history of using sound cleverly to make you feel its theme parks are magical places.

When you pull into the parking lot and board a courtesy tram, the author reports, you’ll hear every word spoken over the PA, thanks to careful training and high-quality equipment — and the difference between that experience and straining to understand announcements in airports or train stations immediately sets the tone.

Inside the parks, speakers are everywhere, masking sounds of the outside world, providing seamless transitions between adjacent “lands,” and even marching you along briskly at the end of each ride.

Beckerman makes his living advising companies, including Disney, how to use sound effectively. Strangely, some of his tales from the field are among the weakest parts of the book, suffering from false humility and obvious attempts to avoid stepping on toes of big clients.

One too-long anecdote about creating an anthem for AT&T describes a breakthrough moment where the addition of bagpipes somehow “ultimately helped capture a new layer of AT&T’s humanity and the idea of relentless innovation that the company practices.” Similarly awkward is Beckerman’s thinly veiled pitch to get consulting work from McDonald’s, claiming that the burger chain’s sound signature isn’t fully cooked.

The book includes a few pro-bono sound suggestions for smaller businesses (get a frequent customer to create an in-store playlist, use antique cash registers in antique stores) and some helpful if unsurprising tips for individuals (avoid up-talking, raise pitch to engage and lower it to be authoritative).

There’s also something of an ominous warning: online music providers such as Pandora are compiling information about our favorite songs which will enable clever advertisers to personalize their pitches using sounds we like best.

Most interesting, though, are the various bits of sound-related trivia scattered throughout the book. Ever heard of “the Wilhelm scream,” for example? It’s a remarkable cry of pain first used in a 1953 cowboy movie when a soldier was struck by an arrow and since reprised, intact, in more than 200 other motion pictures (including several in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series, as well as “Batman Returns,” “Reservoir Dogs,” and “Toy Story”).

Then there’s the Mosquito, a device that makes unpleasant noises at a frequency heard only by humans between ages 13 and 25 — useful for municipalities trying to discourage kids from loitering.

And how about the fact that Moscow transit riders can use the gender of the voice on the PA announcements to determine their train’s direction, while stations in Tokyo have their own musical jingles? And did you know that there’s a “sound” explanation for airline food?

Thanks to such entertaining asides and Beckerman’s enthusiastic conviction that sound matters more than anything, readers of The Sonic Boom might suddenly find they’re hearing things they had never noticed before.

Randy Cepuch — a former disc jockey and author of A Weekend with Warren Buffett and Other Shareholder Meeting Adventures — is pretty sure his walk-on music would be “The Impossible Dream.”

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