Cadences in Audio Jingles

18 October 2020

In October 2016, audio intelligence and analytics company Veritonic surveyed 2600 Americans, asking them to listen to jingles of the top US brands at the time and to record their feelings after hearing each one. Based on results from this survey, each brand received a score in several categories, including approachability, uniqueness, and unaided recall (how easily the participants recalled the jingles 48 hours later). These scores were then normalized out of 100 to form an aggregate 'audio logo index', and the findings were published a short time later in the form of a comprehensive top-25 list.

Veritonic's impressive study, and many others that came before and after it, have typically focused on the listener's emotions and their retention of the jingle above all else. A 2020 study by Quality Logo Products, for example, rated jingles using similar benchmarks: timelessness, memorability, and creativity. And while no one could argue with the importance of these criteria, what's interesting to note is that none of them are actually quantifiable with regard to the musical composition itself. In other words, no one can judge a jingle's timelessness or memorability or even creativity by examining the tune on its own — such criteria always require a group consensus: a group of people within the target demographic, ranking it subjectively against other similar jingles they've come across. Do the musical components only contribute to the success of the brand indirectly then? Or can any useful information be extracted from the melodic and harmonic content of today's successful brands?

The Problem with Melodies

One problem with looking at sonic logos strictly through a scientific lens (as with any visual logo, too, for that matter) is that each logo, by definition, strives to stand out among its competition. As such, analysing the top brands will only give an overview of what is successful today, rather than what could be creative and cutting-edge tomorrow. Attempting to draw conclusions from past successes on what should and shouldn't work isn't a foolproof plan, and at the very least hinders a much sought-after creative edge. With regard to a sonic logo's melody, restricted as we may be in terms of its length and complexity, successful melodies have still varied quite a lot historically. Some sonic brands have found success in what is essentially a short orchestral composition (e.g. Sony/Columbia Pictures), whereas others have opted for merely a couple of reverberant notes (e.g. Intel, Duracell, to name a few). And then there are companies who abolished the melody altogether and have still managed to find success – take MGM's iconic lion roar, for example.

Chord Progressions

Ok, so perhaps melodies on their own aren't the best place to search for patterns. What about the harmonies underneath them then (i.e. the chord progressions)? Well, in some ways, this feature of the music faces a similar fate: some jingles have made do with just one chord, while others use none at all — there's no secret formula, really. If, however, we take into account only the jingles built on melodies that are at least a few notes in length, some patterns in the jingles' chords begin to emerge. And regardless of whether the chords are actually present or only implied, identifying a pattern in the harmonic structure could help in better understanding what makes some jingles more effective than others. To illustrate, let's take a look at the tune from McDonald's iconic "I'm lovin' it" campaign:

*All jingles transposed to D Major for a clear comparison.

The tune was written in 2003 by Pharrell Williams' production team, The Neptunes, and made its first appearance as a Justin Timberlake single of the same name. Needless to say, the jingle has gone through a variety of cosmetic changes over the years: variations in the tempo, instrumentation, tonality, etc. Oddly enough, though, no clear harmonic progression has ever been established during the jingle's 17-year hegemony, despite all the changes. Even in Justin Timberlake's original R&B song, the chord progression is kept ambiguous, featuring very little harmonic movement under the 'pa-ra-pa-pa-pa' notes. And it's not like it had to be this way, either: a simple I-ii-V-I progression would fit just fine under the given melodic material. In the key of D Major, this would translate to E Minor, A Major, and D Major chords respectively:

*6/4 denotes 2nd inversion chords; 6 denotes 1st inversion chords.

We don't stop there, though. As is often the case, I-ii-V-I progressions can be swapped out for I-IV-V-I progressions, and thanks to the fast movement and abundance of passing notes in the melody, this can be further simplified to I-IV-I. In the end we're left with a I-IV-I chord progression — better known as a plagal cadence.

Jingles as Perfect & Plagal Cadences

Cadences in music are simple chord progressions that bring a musical idea to a close. The two most common cadences utilized in Western music are the plagal cadence (IV-I progression) and the perfect cadence (V-I progression). In the key of D Major, that would translate to G Major-D Major and A Major-D Major, respectively. Deciding what chord "fits" under a note or a series of notes requires determining which ones are fundamental to the composition's structure, and which ones are merely being passed over (i.e. passing notes).

In some cases, it's not so clear which notes should fall into which category, and that ambiguity is often an asset in the context of a longer composition, allowing for creative harmonic choices to be made. In a typical jingle, though, there's only a bar or two to work with, restricting the harmonic progression to a handful of chords. And as these progressions are reduced further and further toward their "lowest common denominators", so to speak, they tend to fall into one of two categories: those that fit over a plagal cadence (IV-I), and those that fit over a perfect cadence (V-I). Green Giant's famous audio logo is a good example of a perfect cadence implied from the melody:

The Green Giant "Ho-ho-ho" jingle was based on a song written by the Kingsmen, a garage rock band from Portland, Oregon. In 1964, the Green Giant Company (named after their successful canned product) purchased rights to the tune and hired baritone singer Len Dresslar Jr. to sing his iconic three notes. History was made. Though the jingle has fewer notes than McDonald's "I'm lovin' it", it has no clearly defined cadence either. Still, the few notes that are present all happen to fit perfectly over a V-I perfect cadence — a necessity, considering the slower tempo which would make any non-chord passing note stick out for long enough to noticeably reduce the jingle's sense of resolution.

Finally, Nationwide's "Nationwide is by your side" jingle is another example of such an undercover cadence at work. It was written in 1977 by Kentuckan J.D. Miller, and in all its simplistic glory not only topped Veritone's 2016 audio logo index, but has made reappearances in various top-brand compilations since then, including Veritone's 2020 audio logo index. Featuring a melody comprised of only three distinct pitches, it fits neatly over a IV-I plagal cadence:

All-in-all, what's important to note here is that each jingle boils down to a single, unique cadence. Whether the chord progression is actually part of the sonic brand (e.g. Sony/Columbia Pictures, HARIBO), or implied (e.g. McDonald's, Green Giant), either a perfect or a plagal cadence seems to always fit underneath! And even when busier harmonies are possible (as seen in the ii-V-I cadence for "I'm lovin' it"), the brevity of a jingle ensures that a suitable perfect/plagal alternative should be able to be found.

Many popular brands have historically featured melodies that fit neatly on top of one of these two cadences. This should not come as a surprise — at the end of the day, a cadence's function is to create a sense of resolution, and what evokes confidence and trustworthiness in a brand if not a sense of resolution?! Whether intentional or by chance, many top brands have seemed to choose tunes to fit this same formula, successfully leveraging the consumer's familiarity with the two fundamental cadences.

As the years go by and new brands are designed and developed, other aspects of the sonic brand may need to be reinvented. Whatever that may entail, building music over the same fundamental perfect/plagal cadence seems like a good option for keeping the sound grounded in something familiar. The good news is, even if we run out of melodies to work with, a cadence on its own might just be enough to get the job done. After all, if THX can build a brand based solely on this teeth-shatteringly epic plagal cadence, there's gotta be something in it.