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What Makes a Good Alarm Clock Sound?

There’s a perfect sound or light to wake up to. What’s yours?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Last month, I was listening to some sleepy music on an early-morning flight to California when suddenly my song was interrupted by a familiar tune. It began with a soft piano tinkle in my earbuds and grew into a warm, all-encompassing sonic blanket of positivity. Before I realized what was happening, I felt a Pavlovian inspiration to get out of my plane seat, make some tea, feed my cat, and read The New York Times. And then I realized what I was listening to: my alarm clock.

The tune — a ditty from iOS 10’s revamped Clock app titled “First Light” — was a far cry from the incessant beeping of my childhood digital alarm clock that still haunts me to this day. And in the same way I had learned to loath that clamor as a kid, I had developed a fond emotional attachment to the calming tune in a little under two months. The noise that greeted me every morning was no longer a utilitarian tool but, like most tech products these days, a product crafted to evoke feeling.

It was inevitable that, in an industry where improving sleep has become its own sub-economy, alarm clock sounds would get disrupted, too. Sure, morning alerts have taken many sonic forms over the course of human civilization, including rooster crows, ringing bells, and Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe.” But as more Americans become loyal smartphone users — especially the kind that sleep next to their gadget each night — tangible alarm clocks have been replaced with apps that get creative with their morning racket. In this new medium, the strategies for waking up have multiplied, sometimes adopting gimmicky or cruel approaches in the search to answer the same questions: What’s the perfect sound, light, or smell to wake up to?

There have been endless studies surrounding behavior that affects sleep and sleep cycles themselves, but the field of research correlating physical well-being to alarm clock sounds is essentially nonexistent. One 2003 study found that subjects who woke up to dawn-simulating light lamps experienced increased levels of cortisol — a steroid hormone that helps prepare your body for stress. As sleep expert Michael J. Decker told The Huffington Post (a.k.a. Arianna Huffington’s personal sleep blog) in a 2014 interview, the study suggested that “sensory input does create a physiologic response.” Meaning that, while there’s little more than anecdotal evidence that a nuclear-attack-esque alarm can harm you, you’re better off mood-wise not being jolted awake.

But a lack of solid scientific research has never stopped Silicon Valley from attempting to make something old new again. Since the early days of personal computing, technologists have worked to develop sound effects and jingles to give human context to static digital experiences. Those early efforts were just as much about guiding users through their actions via skeuomorphic noises like crumpling paper as they were about branding a company with a signature reboot sound like the Mac’s.

“Sound in any way, shape, or form often provides emotional context,” Steve Milton, the founding partner at the sound branding studio Listen, told me when I recounted my moving alarm clock experience. “There are certain harmonic, rhythmic, temporal qualities of sounds that, without a doubt, people innately and intuitively understand to mean something, by in large, across cultures.”

Milton’s firm is responsible for some of the tech industry’s most recognizable sounds, including the sparkly Tinder “match” jingle and Skype’s suite of sound effects. In addition to developing alarm clock sounds for Virgin and Nokia back in the day, Listen occasionally uses them for internal sonic design exercises as a way to reimagine traditional noises. Milton says that generally, people respond better to sounds that occur within the range of sounds humans can make through speech. But as we have become more comfortable interacting with gadgets on a daily basis, our expectations for sound have also changed. For instance, most smartphone users expect to hear a sound with a melody that goes from high to low when powering off a device, and from low to high when turning it on.

“There are things that are within the natural world that we carry with us that help us to interpret sound,” he said. “And there are things that are learned and cultural that we carry with us and help us to understand how sounds work.”

The ingrained cultural understanding of an alarm as an automatically unpleasant, cacophonous loop of noise is likely the reason that many smartphones still offer the unnerving copies of analog and digital alarm clocks. Robleh Jama, creator of the popular Wake alarm clock app, says that out of the add-on packs he offers, the “Classic Alarms” collection is the second most popular (after “Nature” of course).

“Everyone’s used a classic alarm clock at some point, and for most people, waking up in the morning is synonymous with some sort of alarm beeping sound,” he told me in an email. “People have an emotional and subconscious draw toward that classic sound. That’s why we included the classics.”

Sounds of ocean waves and high-frequency sirens aside, however, Milton says that the more modern alarm clock sounds he’s heard are inspired by their analog predecessors without outwardly mimicking them.

“Some of the digital ones will reference the old kind of hammer going between two bells,” he said. “Rather than just replicating that, I want to break it down into a first-principles approach. What if we were to think about not bells? What if we were just thinking about just that motion, and what does that motion sound like? That opens you up to a whole new palette that you can play with as far as like what an alarm clock could sound like in a digital world.”

While not every alarm clock app sources its songs from scratch, most developers I spoke to said an extensive amount of research went into their picks. The team that created Bonjour, a “smart” digital alarm clock that began as a Kickstarter, even hired Stanford neuroscientist Damien Colas as its chief science officer. According to the product company’s cofounder Jerome Schonfeld, Colas advised them to design their alarms based on findings that show “emotional balance in alarm clock sounds create better cognitive engagement on the long term versus high sensorial stimulation.” As a result, Bonjour offers a collection of gentle melodies on its platform, the option to connect with music apps, or to record a wake-up voice message from a loved one.

Similarly, the developers of the sleep-tracking app Pillow have also made sure to include an “emotional balance” in their offerings. The categories of their choices are divided into composed music and looping sounds — options that can sometimes indicate whether you’re a light sleeper or a heavy one. When it came to the composed music, they loaded the app with a collection of composed music with hopeful titles like “This Is It” that escalated in rhythm, maintained a positive, motivational tone, and was composed with real instruments as opposed to electronic samples. The looped noises tended toward the more traditional, like cricket sounds or bells. They also programmed each sound to gradually play at zero to 80 percent volume as it rang each day, assuming people would prefer to wake up more peacefully. But after they carefully curated the most calming sounds possible, users responded with a stark message: Let us make it louder.

“One of our most requested features in Pillow that will be available on the upcoming version is the ability to control the sound of the alarm volume,” Panos Spiliotis, the app’s designer and cocreator told me via email. “People either want to be woken up by a piece of music that starts at a low volume that gradually escalates or by a loud noise.”

Sure, there is a Silicon Valley subcommunity dedicated to determining how people want to wake up in 2016, but for some heavy sleepers, old-fashioned rules apply: Just ring the alarm.