Arbeeny contrasts the layered, polyphonic compositions she’s created for these appliances with the grating bleeps of microwaves past. They’re softer, for one, and more personal. “It makes you feel like there’s a human playing that harp for you, plucked by human hands,” she said. Inside the conference room where we sat, we could hear an air conditioner groan. “And it doesn’t sound like that,” she added.
The sounds are still intended to be functional. Our machines prod us—ever so gently!—through our tasks. But they also set a mood. The person washing socks becomes the “hero” in a domestic drama, Brandon Satanek, the global senior manager of product and digital user-experience design at Whirlpool, told me. An appliance’s notifications provide the soundtrack to that movie, which follows an emotional arc. When the KitchenAid Smart Oven+ finishes preheating, it plays a hopeful phrase (da-da-di?), while a finished bake is accompanied by a triumphant da-di-dum! Likewise with the washer/dryer. “There are certain happy events in those situations,” Satanek said. “When you’ve finished washing your clothes, and you’re ready to smell those clean clothes, it’s a moment to celebrate. We want to reinforce those things in a really positive way with the sounds.” Cue the harps.
These companies believe that bespoke sounds deepen customer loyalty: If you like what you hear, Satanek explained, you will develop brand allegiance, replacing a Whirlpool with a Whirlpool, and seeking out other members of its product family.
Whether this is a realistic bet or wishful thinking is an open question. Sound is more visceral than sight, Daniel Levitin, the celebrated neuroscientist and author of This Is Your Brain on Music, told me. We’re more easily startled by sound because, unlike vision, it’s processed directly in the brain stem. But first, sound waves cause our eardrums to vibrate. “They sound like they’re coming from inside our heads,” Levitin said. “That’s very intimate.” In the 1990s, Levitin researched how sound might be built into Microsoft’s operating systems, which were trying to keep up with Apple’s earcons—the intuitive crumple of an emptying trash can, the pleasing whoosh of outgoing email.
A wealth of studies in consumer psychology attests to the power of sound to affect our decision making. In one famous experiment from the ’90s, British wine shoppers bought five times as many French bottles as German bottles when French accordions played in the store; when an oompah band sounded, German wine outsold the French. Still other studies have suggested that slot-machine noises, often high-pitched and in major keys, can nudge gamblers to keep playing and can even encourage riskier bets.
A kitchen isn’t a casino, however. Can a well-considered score really make consumers more likely to buy a Whirlpool over a GE? Will the sock washer still feel heroic the 50th time he runs the machine—or merely annoyed? Audio UX, an audio-branding studio based in New York, recently commissioned a study that found that custom-made “premium” sounds, as opposed to “generic” ones, were likelier to be associated with the correct action (e.g., turning on a dishwasher) by test users, most of whom also said they’d prefer to own the brand that offered the customized cues. Those results serve the interests of the company that produced them, but the findings tracked with some of the academic work in this field. Vijaykumar Krishnan, the chair of the marketing department at Northern Illinois University, has found that changing a product’s sonic logo to a more distinctive composition can increase how much a consumer is willing to pay for the product.