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Can AI Create a Sonic Brand?

Artificial Intelligence Sonic Branding

These days, AI, and more specifically generative AI — which produces things like text, images, video, and music — is creating a lot of buzz (or fear depending on your stance). With such a growing interest in generative AI and big companies like Google and Microsoft pushing to innovate in the field, what does this mean for music creators, and more specifically, for the sonic branding world — could AI create a believable sonic brand? The answer is yes… and no.

Machine Music

It’s difficult to avoid generative AI these days. It seems like there are discussions everywhere you look, and like many, you’ve probably jumped to visions of machines taking over our jobs and ultimately turning on us entirely. However, the things generative AI can do, albeit a little rough around the edges, are pretty darn cool. ChatGPT can mimic our writing style, Stable Diffusion can create images from text, Runway can create motion pictures, and there are a whole host of others. Music is a particularly interesting area of AI because we rely entirely on our ears to determine how believable the sound is — and for many, this is easier said than done.

In a recent online poll, NBC News asked readers, “Do you think music composed by a computer is still music?” While there is plenty of support both ways, the majority of respondents lean toward, “Yes, if it sounds like music, it is – no matter who or what wrote it.” Purists may argue that human artistry cannot be matched by machine, but the fact is that most listeners aren’t as discerning — they like what they like no matter who or what composed it.

Augmented Creativity

While (for now) most of us can read a paragraph of AI text or see an AI-generated image and recognize the nuances that make it so, deciphering between human versus machine-created audio is already very difficult to do, especially for genres such as electronic for example, and this is exactly what companies like Amper and Sony Flow Machines strive for. Both companies design generative AI software that can create music in seconds based on a few commands.

However, despite what you might think, these companies aren’t looking to fuel a technological armageddon. Quite the opposite, they are seeking to give musicians and composers the space to focus on projects that demand creativity, leaving the redundancy to the machines. In fact, Sony even refers to its solution as ‘Augmented Creativity’.

One of the biggest challenges facing creatives these days is the ever-increasing need to produce content. Software companies are no stranger to this challenge and have been addressing it for years. Consider automations like grammar check and sentence completion in Word, the magic wand tool and auto color correction in Photoshop, and plug-in presets and auto-drummers in ProTools and Logic. These tools were designed to make the creative process more efficient, while allowing artists to spend more time crafting the final product.

While generative AI is a big step up from basic automations, at its core it’s solving the same challenge. As demand for content ramps up to light speed, generative AI promises to protect artists from the repetitive, and often unrewarding, tasks that can eat up huge amounts of time and energy. With respect to music, MusicRadar states, “the huge demand for ‘functional’ music has swelled as the rise of YouTube and podcasting has increased. Meeting this demand efficiently is a task at which [AI services] excel.” Our job as creatives then is to focus on the high-value aspects of the creative process, where, coincidentally, we often generate the greatest emotional reward.

Creating A Sonic Brand

Sonic branding is all about creating audible familiarity with a brand. Like all aspects of strategic branding it has many layers, especially when it comes to associating emotions with a brand. It’s one thing to say how you want a brand to feel, but it’s something entirely different to design a sound that influences audiences to feel that way. The process involves tying together a brand’s values and style with representative tonalities, progressions, and rhythms. Sure, you can tell an AI program to use these inputs to generate appropriate sounds, but it cannot evaluate the emotional connection of the results — it’s this ability to empathize with audiences that gives humans a distinct advantage when it comes to developing cohesive sonic brands.

When asked if AI systems can ‘think,’ Amba Kak, Executive Director of the AI Now Institute, recently told The Atlantic, “The short answer is no. They don’t think. They’re not intelligent. They are ‘haphazardly stitching together [information]’ they observe in the data.” She goes on to say that “[what these systems] are doing is fairly banal, right? They’re taking a ton of data from the web. They’re learning patterns, spitting out outputs, replicating the learning data.”

While this process can produce some convincing results, there’s still something missing that restricts machines from connecting the dots in the way humans do — emotional cognition, our ability to draw meaningful inferences across a multitude of variables.

Inspiring Creativity

Given all we know about AI, it is certainly possible for software to create a sonic brand, in the same way that it is possible for AI to spit out a picture, a paragraph, or a song people will enjoy. However, achieving the desired emotional response would require a lot of human time and energy to fine tune the output. AI isn’t built to make the emotional connections that we can. If the aim is to make our processes more efficient, then this is not where AI is best utilized. Instead, as technology progresses, musicians and brand creatives can use AI for inspiration, opening creative doors they might not have seen, and giving them the opportunity to shape and mold ideas into true works of branding art.

As we venture deeper into the great AI unknown, we should embrace human creativity and our unique ability to relate to the world emotionally. Technology continues to provide amazing, new tools for producing music and sonic branding, inspiring composers to push their work to new heights. Add to it the richness and emotional lift that comes from real musicians playing real instruments, recorded in real time, and you’ve got a recipe for some truly innovative music — possibly some new genres altogether.

We’ve certainly never seen creative tools as advanced as generative AI, but that doesn’t mean we need to fear them. Embracing these tools as inspirational building blocks in the same way we have embraced software automations, presets, and plugins can open the door for a new wave of creative possibilities. It also affords us the opportunity to break from task-oriented creative routines that eat up our time, energy, and inspiration. AI likely will not develop an award winning sonic brand, but with some fine tuning, it can provide the space and inspiration for us to do so.

Russell Boiarsky is Director/Brand Strategy at Stephen Arnold Music — The World Leader In Sonic Branding® — which has 30 years of success delivering impactful, brand-defining music that generates engagement and recall for today’s top networks, cable channels, content creators, television stations, digital media outlets, production companies, corporations and advertising agencies.

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