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How the Primal Intimacy of Sound Can Connect Like No Other Medium

How the Primal Intimacy of Sound Can Connect Like No Other Medium – Sound Design Jury President

Illustration by Lauren Morsley

Tseliso Rangaka is the Chief Creative Officer of FCB Joburg and Hellocomputer. In his 12-year tenure at Ogilvy Tseliso performed a key creative leadership role across multiple brands within the Ogilvy South Africa Group, including Volkswagen, Audi, ABINBEV, KFC, Coca-Cola and Mondelez. He also led creative teams behind some of the Group’s most effective and award winning work. 

Here, Rangaka delves into the deep and effecting power of sound to connect us – to our memories and to others –  and what this means for the Sound Design category in a year of isolation.

“Someone told me once that being blind is losing your connection with things and being deaf is losing your connection with people. ” –  Anon

Which do you prefer? Being blind or deaf? This is the question my 12-year-old daughter asked me very recently. She often throws these kinds of absolute questions at me. I told her I preferred to be neither. To which she replied, It’s only a game, don’t be boring. So I thought about it for a bit.

My first inclination was to choose sight. It’s the obvious choice for most people, I imagine. But then I thought about what that would actually mean. I would never again lose myself in the grand aural adventure that is The Pat Metheny Group’s Secret Story album. I would never hear Nina Simone’s complex, serrated voice again. Samuel L. Jackson’s ominous cadence, just before he blows someone’s brains out, would forever be lost to me. Suddenly my daughter’s question was a very serious one to consider.

"I couldn’t live without music or sound. The ocean colliding with rocks. An airbus flying overhead, the annoying whine of a mosquito courting my ear"

I couldn’t live without music or sound. The ocean colliding with rocks. An airbus flying overhead, the annoying whine of a mosquito courting my ear. I resolved that if I ever had the misfortune to choose between the two, for realsies, I would hang on to my sense of hearing over being able to see.

It makes sense when I think about the role audio plays in our lives. We got to hear the comforting sound of our mothers’ voices at a prenatal 16 weeks. Long before we even saw them. That’s a powerful connection that lasts through most of our lives. And that is just one example of how sound can plug directly into one’s soul.  

Music is a big part of my life. Some of my earliest memories involve flipping through my father’s vinyl record collection while jazz, gospel, or classical music played in the background. Those memories stuck with me and have no doubt influenced the type of person I am today in an extremely peculiar and nuanced way.

“And that is just one example of how sound can plug directly into one’s soul”

I’m not the only person who regularly rides the music time machine. It can drop us into a specific moment, place, and time. It’s instant. We don’t even have to think about it. It’s that powerful. Music also connects us to other people in a way that the group selfie can’t even come close to. Pop songs from the 80s and 90s House music have a very specific effect on people my age. We all listened to the same songs at a formative stage of our lives. When we were discovering the world together. The music was ever constant in the background, accompanying us through our adolescence. Imperceptibly putting a timestamp on our collective memories.     

Music is not the only form of audio that has a potent effect on human beings. Much of what we base our knowledge and understanding of the world on has been preserved and passed on over millennia through oral tradition. This chain of storytelling eventually gave rise to folklore, poetry, theatre, hip-hop and many other artforms and platforms we now take for granted. Radio is one of them.

"Music also connects us to other people in a way that the group selfie can’t even come close to"

Much like the internet, radio was first available almost exclusively to the military. The content was Morse Code and the audience were naval officers during World War 1. As the technology improved, Morse Code gave way to voice and public broadcasting took hold. Since then, the radio has been a companion to humanity. Informing us, entertaining us. Playing back our inspired best and atrocious worst selves.

Radio, much like us, has evolved to embrace the digital age. We’re no longer restricted to local radio stations that only speak our language and play our kind of music. The world is on our dial so to speak. We can eavesdrop on other cultures around the world. Their news, their weather reports, their traffic situation. We become privy to the things they hold dear and are able to live a moment in their lives through sound waves. As a result, we feel just a little more connected to them.

"The humble radio yet again became a source of meaningful connection to others"

In 2020 all of humanity retreated. We boarded ourselves in and went into mutual isolation. We lost meaningful contact with our friends, family, and colleagues. For millions of people, the worst thing was being locked-down alone. Social media became an echo chamber reverberating with the worst of the Pandemic. Television was a video wall of death and loss. Binge streaming, while comforting at first, soon became a numbing bubble of detachment from real life. The humble radio yet again became a source of meaningful connection to others. It harnessed our imaginations to bring our favourite show presenters, music artists, and interests right into our homes – vivid proof of life beyond our walls and the virus taking over the world.

"They understood that in a time of crisis, intimacy should not be exploited for gains, but be used as scaffolding for enduring connections"

Inevitably brands hitched a ride on that intimate connection. Most of these behaved like rowdy uninvited guests. Opening up our cupboards and fridges to tell us what we should be putting in there. Some commented on our weight, our wardrobe, and the contents of our wallets. 

Once every so often, a different kind of brand would speak softly into our ears, more like a friend than an intruder. These exceptional brands asked how we were doing and offered to help. They used the medium to charge our imaginations with gifts of laughter, entertainment, and light-heartedness. They understood that in a time of crisis, intimacy should not be exploited for gains, but be used as scaffolding for enduring connections. These are brands that know how to channel the power of sound to draw us closer. We’re also more likely to remember them as having been there in our greatest time of need.

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