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Steve Keller - The Power of Sound

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Steve Keller is Sonic Strategy Director for Studio Resonate at Pandora. Prior to joining Pandora, Steve was the founder and CEO of iV, an audio consultancy based in Nashville that specialized in the strategy, content, research, and management necessary for successful audio branding initiatives.

Steve is recognized as one of the foremost experts in the field of audio branding, actively engaged in projects that explore the power of sound to shape perceptions and influence behavior. Recent experiments include an examination of the relationship between sound and taste (conducted with Oxford’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory), an exploration into the existence of audio archetypes (conducted with Goldsmiths University London) and demonstrating the effects of source bias on evaluations of music aesthetics and worth (conducted with The Technical University of Berlin). Steve is also a part of the think tank serving Chef Jozef Youssef’s London based Kitchen Theory, lending his sonic expertise to the development of gastrophysics experiences for brands and consumers alike.

In addition to a degree in Psychology with a focus on research, social psychology and group dynamics, Steve has over 30 years of experience in the music industry as a producer, remixer, composer, independent label executive, music publisher and manager. Forever the student, he is the 2017 recipient of the iHeartMedia Scholarship for Leadership in Audio Innovation, and is currently completing an Executive MBA through the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, focused on how brands can more effectively measure and predict returns on audio investments.

Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)

John: So, Steve, thank you for being here and welcome to the show.

Steve: Thank you. That's a mouthful.

John: I guess that's your way of saying the only thing you haven't been is a rock star.

Steve: Yeah, exactly. I've been around the block, let's put it that way. The sonic block, so to speak.

John: It's great. It's really a pleasure to have you here. So, Steve it's something we've been talking about that I've seen kind of, we just mentioned in your biography and just in our discussions as well. Something I've become aware of is the research that you have done looking at the relationship between sound and taste. And I know our listeners are going to be extremely interested in these kind of cross modal phenomena. So if you could kind of bring us up to speed on the research that you've been involved in, the kind of findings that you've discovered, I think that would be a great way for us to get started.

Steve: Sure. You know, and I have to start a few years ago when I met an individual by the name of Charles Spence. Charles is the head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford. I met Charles at a conference and was fascinated with his presentation on his work in crossmodalism and specifically some of the ideas around sound. And just for listeners who aren't familiar with crossmodalism, it's a branch of psychophysics, which is a branch in psychology that looks at how we make sense of the world around us, literally through our senses. And so Charles looks at this interplay of our senses. And I think an interesting way for listeners to think about it is many of them may be familiar with the idea of synesthesia, which is literally where an individual has their senses crossed. So they may see something and in addition to seeing it, they may actually smell it. There may be an aroma that's associated with it. They might hear a piece of music and actually see colors that are associated with it. And what Charles has found in his research is that to some extent we're all natural synesthetes. So there are ways in which we attempt to make sense of the world by looking for a congruence in our sensory expression. So with sound, we started playing with this, particularly in the realm of taste, looking at things like could we change your perception of the sweetness or bitterness of a piece of chocolate, not just by what we put in your mouth, but what we put in our ears. And we've also explored spiciness. I work with Charles and one of his students, Janice Yang, to do some research around spiciness in food. We've also explored the idea of saltiness. And it's just interesting when you begin to understand the way sound is far more than just something that's happening in the background. We begin to understand that it's shaping and changing our perception. Then, you start thinking about music playlists in a restaurant. It's not just about ambiance, it could be something that depending on the type of music that you pick or particularly the volume of it. It can have an impact on not only flavor, but the amount of food that you consume. Can have an impact on your satisfaction. And we've looked at this not only in the world of food, but also in how that translates into health care. So that's just kind of a very broad overview of some of the research in this area.

John: And you found you were able to manipulate the reported taste experience of....

Steve: Yes. Yeah.

John: Can you describe some of the details there? What were some of the manipulations and how?

Steve: Sure. So, you know, the experiments typically start with, you know, attempting to tease out what we call the sonic seasonings of taste. And so we started simply by asking a panel of subjects questions based on different audio stimuli we would give them. So the stimuli vary in pitch, might vary in levels of distortion, tempo, cultural cues, such as where they might identify a particular rhythm from the speed of attack or decay, and using that to kind of tease out, if you will some natural associations. And then you take the findings from that experiment and then work with a content creator to begin to build a soundscape that uses the sonic seasoning. So in the case of spiciness, we found that things that were higher pitched, faster tempos, a little bit of distortion, fast attack and as you might imagine, you know, some more cultural cues or the sonic ingredients. So then we created the soundscape, the spicy soundscape, and then went through some rigorous testing, one in a relevant setting of a restaurant and then a couple of more in the labs. And at the end of the day, I think there were two really interesting findings. The first was that we did find that we could change someone's perception of how spicy something was if they were listening to the soundtrack. And a lot of the other research we're assuming what's happening here is that you're just getting primed to the sonic cues or teasing your brain into thinking, you know, something about flavor. So we found that if someone were to say, for instance, eat a spicy salsa while they were listening to our soundtrack. They would rate that salsa as significantly more spicy than someone who wasn't listening to a soundtrack or listening to a different kind of a soundtrack. The second finding, which to me is in some ways maybe even more interesting, was what happened when we used a mild salsa instead of a spicy salsa. And you might hypothesize that people who were listening to the spicy soundtrack would rate that milder salsa as tasting spicier. And we actually found just the opposite, that if you were listening to the spicy soundtrack, you rated that mild salsa as tasting less spicy than someone who wasn't listening to it. And the takeaway for us in that experiment and in a few others that have shown this phenomenon is what we call a contrast and compare. You're listening to a spicy soundtrack. Your brain is being primed for something spicy. You taste it. And it's not quite as spicy as you might have been thinking. And so you rated as tasting less spicy. And that's because the brain is always looking for congruence, you know, that's why in marketing, sometimes we play to incongruence to capture attention. Oh, I didn't expect that, you know. Oh, that piece of green jello that I just ate didn't taste like lime. It tasted like chicken. So we can get your attention with that. But if consistently there is an incongruence in the experience, it usually winds up not being very, very pleasant. And so, you know, when we're telling you with sound, you're going to taste something spicy and it is spicy, it magnifies the experience, not so spicy and the brain goes the other way with it. So from a brand perspective, you think about this and it makes your intention of thinking about congruency across sense is really important. As I like to say, sound doesn't happen in a vacuum. Literally, nobody hears you scream in space. But, you know, when you're reacting to sound, there all kinds of other sensory components that go into that. What you're seeing, texture that might be involved. Aroma that might be involved. And the more you can align the senses, the more power, the impact on the consumer.

John: Yeah, that's interesting. As much as they say in response to that. So one thing I'm interested in is, so it's almost like there's this intentional priming that you're priming people to pay attention to certain aspects of the food, and the thing is there, it's really notice if it's not there, its absence is noticed. So was the sound plate concurrent with the eating or did you play around with the temporal delay? I mean, is it the case that you could play a sound now and in a minute there would be an effect when you eat something?

Steve: We didn't do that research, but Janice Wang has done some of that research and others. And they found that when it's concurrent with the experience, that's when you see the largest effect. There is some effect when you kind of maybe, you know, prime beforehand and then you have the eating experience later. But as you can imagine, for all of us, we tend to, you know, relate to sensory experiences in the moment. So it's better when you're listening and eating at the same time.

John: Right. Okay, that's fascinating. So another thing I'd like to ask you about, maybe we were getting ahead of ourselves, but something is on my mind a lot is augmented reality because that's on its way, right? And how do you see these ideas? I mean, do you see a world, maybe can talk a little bit about your kind of current role at Pandora, the kind of work that you do with, you know, working with brands? Maybe you just take a step back and talk about that a little bit before we start talking about the future. So can you describe to our listeners a little bit of what is that you currently doing?

Steve: Sure. Well, often in that discussion begins with people saying, what on earth is a sonic strategy director? Most people say that's kind of a cool title, but what is it? What do you do? And, you know, I refer to myself as an audio alchemist, you know, an alchemist in the Jungian sense where you had people that were kind of blending materials in the hopes of transforming them into something more precious, and so I do that as a sonic strategy director in that I'm blending sound science with sound art in an attempt to help my clients be able to make sound decisions. So obviously, there's the play on words there with sound, but it really is taking some of these things, like the idea of crossmodalism, how that may impact brand perception and experience, and then translating that into, you know, a creative idea or execution, but also helping clients understand the intention behind their choices. If they're going to have a video on a script, why would they choose one video over another? Why would they choose one piece of music over another. If they are working with functional sounds, what do they need to be thinking about in terms of behavior and the function as well as the form? So I'm tasked at Pandora in Studio Resonate, which is our in-house audio first consult creative consultancy with helping our clients develop sonic strategies. Often if they have an identity, how they can maximize that. If they don't have an identity, how can they develop that? And also some of these kind of interesting activations. For instance, we just talked about sound and we worked with Propel last year for an activation at one of their events where they wanted to play with this idea of sound and taste. So we teased out the sound of electrolytes, which is essentially sodium. And so we had a soundscape for electrolytes and then we created another soundscape for fruit, which kind of taps into sweetness. And we built an app, we called it Flavordj. And the flavordj was on an iPad and a number of kiosks at the event and participants would come to the kiosk. They put on headphones, they'd have their propel. And as they were drinking their propel, they could move a fader between the fruit and the electrolytes and just watching the surprise on their face, looking up and saying, how are you doing this? I know I'm drinking out of the same bottle of propel, but it really is changing, you know. And then when we explained the science behind it, we also had a visual hack, because as you move the fader towards electrolytes, we desaturated the colors in the app. So it became more white because we moved it towards fruit. It saturated the colors so that they became more bright, which kind of ties in crossmodally to sweetness. And most of the folks in that experiment, it's not that they ended up tasting the the sodium or some super tasters may have noticed that. But what they did notice was that the sweetness was changing. We were actually cutting the perception of sweetness with the electrolyte soundtrack. So that's just an example of what I do and how, you know, some of the things we just talked about are applied in a brand setting.

John: Right. Now, that's fascinating. And actually, I mean, just even taking a further step back, I think your whole origin story of how you ended up doing this is fascinating. If we can kind of rewind a little bit, I think it would be great to hear you talk about the path that you've taken to end up. I mean, your job sounds awesome. So what path did you take you where you are?

Steve: Sure. It's been a long, long and winding road. But again, trying to abbreviate and keep it short, I started early in my life fascinated by music. I started taking piano lessons when I was six. I picked up a guitar and taught myself how to play the guitar when I was 14. Started writing songs when I was in high school, mainly because it was a fairly effective dating tool. I didn't really think about it as a career. And so when it came time to graduate from high school to move on to the next thing, I was always interested in psychology as well. I was struck by the fact that it was a healing profession, so to speak. I was always fascinated by how our minds work. So I headed to the university and that was my course of study. And so I graduated with my BA in Psychology. The plan was then to go on to grad school, get my master's and PhD. And I was sitting out for a year, I had a couple of jobs. I was doing research statistics for a mental health community, mental health organization, and also teaching at a school for kids with severe behavioral disorders. But I was playing in some coffee houses on the weekend because I never really, you know, totally moved away from the music thing. You know, I was playing in some groups and did some singing and performing in college, and it was never a real aha moment. I think I just gave myself permission to do something different. I went to my psych Profs and said, here's what I'm thinking and they said, hey, you know, take another year off, see where the road takes you. And that's what I did and the road took me to Nashville. And so, you know, as most folks that moved to Nashville, the first gig I had was waiting tables. And I was fortunate enough to work at a great restaurant with an amazing chef that who's one of the premier chefs still in Nashville and learned a lot about food, cuisine, the art of the table, and worked on music. You know, in the meantime and my big break came in the early 90's when a lot of people were showing up at dance clubs and doing country line dances. And DJ's started contacting the country labels saying, hey, you can't just give us a cut off an album. It’s not long enough. Do you have any dance remixes of these things? And the labels were like, no, but we heard of a guy that does that. And that guy happened to be me. I was just in the right place at the right time. So I ended up working with a lot of artists from Tim McGraw to Wynona to some old school folks like Leonard Skinner and Neil Diamond. And eventually, while I was doing that I started doing music for commercials. And as I was doing that, I discovered that I just really loved advertising and branding. And then in 2005, these three passions, the psychology and research, the advertising and branding, music, sound, entertainment, came together. When I read about this thing called audio branding. Most of the interesting work was being done in Europe. And so that's when I decided maybe I could use my talents learn about this and push the envelope. And that's when I started my own company, iV and had a lot of success with that and certainly challenged my own growth eventually kind of winding back in academia. You read about some of the studies that I've done recently and that eventually landed me in Pandora's orbit and worked with Pandora doing some presentations here and there and some consulting on the side. And eventually we just got to a point where we looked deep into each other's eyes and realized that it was time to put a ring on it. So they hired me in December of twenty eighteen as Sonic Strategy director, and I'm essentially doing everything that I love. And in a community of people who are really smart, very talented scientists, technicians, creative directors, copywriters, designers, and its heaven. So that's as short as I can make it.

John: It sounds great. I mean, it is interesting some of the themes like psychology you have the sports marketing. It's interesting there's food experience. Yeah, I mean, it's interesting. I think, you know, I've taken a very different path to get to where I am. But actually it's a lot of the same ingredients. You know, the psychology. Yeah, there's a, you mentioned statistics. So that's actually very fascinating. So, yeah, I just like to say, you know, Pandora, I have always loved Pandora. Like I was one of the earliest subscribers I think, to Pandora. As soon as they came out, their idea of using they had that....

Steve: The music genome.

John: Music genome project. Yeah. That really spoke to me because, you know, that was very like almost methodical approach to the way we were electing songs. So it really resonated with me. So, yeah, it's fascinating. Okay, so let's talk a little bit, actually we don't have a kind of time left. So I do want to talk a little bit about the kind of future directions. So you described a little bit the kinds of projects that you're working on. I mean, are you working mainly on the sounds that accompany a brand or are you working with because, you know, obviously in sensory we're interested in, you know, how can we use, I personally think that sound in audition is like really underrated as sense. There's not enough sensory science, we talked about this before the call, and it’s got a background in food and beverage. It branched out to other, you know, personal care products, CPG. You know, of course, there are other applications of sensory out there, like in automobiles, even now private jets, and this kind of thing. But I think it's a lot more that can be done with sound. So the work you're doing, how much of it is tied to a product experience versus kind of the product concept? Like where do you see those two sides interacting?

Steve: Yeah. You mean I really would see those as just two sides of the same coin. It’s similar to when I talk about sound science and sound art. It's not abstinence of hole it's two sides of one coin, you know. So if you're thinking about product, you know, design, brand identity, product experience, I mean, those are all interrelated because again, the impact both of those things have are on perception and behavior. And that’s ultimately what you're attempting to do with branding. So at Pandora there is the one part of it which is kind of the immediate, you know, how do we help our clients with their advertising? How can we help them come up with really interesting experiential pieces that tie into an experience of the brand, which is also an identity of the brand. But on an even higher level, one of the things that I'm always interested in is how could these things bring about something for the communal or societal good? And that's not necessarily hopping on the on the bandwagon of brand purpose. That's a whole other discussion in and of itself. But I do think that there's a way in which I do think that there's a way in which we can think about the world around us and potential sonic interventions. Are there problems that sound can solve? And so I think as brands look at how they're showing up in the world, particularly health care brands. You know, I think that there's an opportunity for looking at how sound can impact not just the identity of a health care brand, but patient and consumer outcomes. Charles and I did a piece of research that was released last year called Medicines Melodies, and it was about how sound can impact music, noise and soundscapes can impact on patient outcomes and satisfaction in health care environments. So when you begin looking at it that way, you can start talking about, you know, brand experience in a sensory world that has an impact potentially for social good, but at the same time is shaping your perception of the brand. So it's all interconnected.

John: Right. That's fascinating. And, you know, I think it just is going to become more and more relevant as you have with 5G. You're going to have Internet of Things, you have wearables. You're going to have the opportunity to conduct more of these sonic interventions, I think, throughout society. I mean, imagine it's interesting to me to think about this, I don't get too far afield of here, but it's interesting to hear your thoughts on a world in which sounds are, I mean, do you notice that there are much individual differences in terms of the sounds that have an impact on people? Or do you find that the, we talked a little bit about this also right before the show, whether the sounds are pretty kind of fundamentally universal and how they impact people or is it the case that once you know something about somebody, the sound you might choose to evoke certain experiences would actually depend on the person? To what extent do you think individual differences are relevant?

Steve: Well, I think that there are probably some individual nuances that come into play. But I think in general, what the research has shown us is that there's somewhat of a universal palette, if you will, of sounds that crosses cultures. I need to be careful not to say that, you know like music and sound is a universal language. There's a lot of debate saying that's not exactly true from a science standpoint. But from our understanding, you know, there’s a reason why alarm tones, for instance, might be similar, that if you were in another country where you couldn't speak the language. You would probably be able to tell the difference between, you know, a sound that's telling you to pay attention versus a sound that may just be notifying you that, you know, something's happened or there’s an alert in some way. And certainly we find that while there might be maybe differences in a cultural expression of music, there's other phenomenon like tempo at work that maybe has an effect on arousal state. So, you know, higher tempos, lower tempos affect arousal. And then some other sonic cues might affect valence, which is, you know, whether we're attracted to something or, you know, we're propelled from it. So, you know, and that could be consonance and dissonance. And again, while there might be nuances in there, universally, we find that by manipulating arousal and valence, you get towards a mood state that can very often translate anywhere in the world. And I think from an identity, from a brand perception standpoint, that's what's interesting, because as a brand, you have to be very careful when you know translate your scripts into another language or the brand name itself could have an unintended meaning. But with sound, you know, we can communicate emotion in relatively similar ways cross culturally, with the few exceptions, naturally. But for the most part, there are those universal elements that are there.

John: Right. That's fascinating. Okay, so let me ask about the future now. So just kind of wrap things up here, what do you think are in the next two to three years? I certainly would like to see within sensory there being a lot more awareness of sound and that's part of why I'm so happy to have you on the show. We're going to have a number of sound experts on the show over the coming months because I really would like more awareness of sound. But what are the things that you're thinking about? What do you think are like the new areas of opportunity or the new topics of research people should be looking into? What are you kind of excited about for the next few years?

Steve: Well, you know, I think it's interesting, you know, as we move more and more into this area of smart speakers, you know, in the way that we're interacting with the world sonically and not just visually or not through text. You know, I think we're going to need to lean into these sonic cues a little bit more. You know, I think we need to pay attention to not only the sounds that we're making, but the people that are hearing because it's the listener is just as important. So what are the contexts in which they're listening? What are the mood states? What are the biases? You know, I'm beginning to take a look at some biases that might exist in how we hear sound racially. And there's an author by the name of Jennifer Lynn Stoever, who's written a marvelous book called Sonic Color Line, and I've talked to Jennifer about this at length and kind of looking at this idea that as a listener, do we hear race? And if we do, why and how does that impact our perception and behavior on the other side of it? So I think as we begin to understand the power of sound in the ways that it shapes our perception and our behavior, I think we can become much more intentional with it. And I want to be careful, because I think sometimes when we talk a lot about the science, there's a way to over-science it. And I do think that the science can inform our creativity. But what makes artists so amazing are the detours they take, the way they rub up against things. And, you know, while I might be able to analyze data and understand maybe why they made a particular choice, I think sometimes we can get too ensconced in a checkbox. Thinking about sound instead of just saying, hey, let's use the science to create a playground and then let's let our creatives run loose in that playground and play with all the dots we've put in front of them and see how they connect them in interesting ways. And that's the marriage, the alchemy, if you will to me between sound science and sound art.

John: Fascinating. Alright, Steve, this has been really great, so we need to wrap up. But let me just ask someone wants to reach out to you, what's the best way for them to get in touch with you?

Steve: Sure. They can reach out to me through my email address And I think we'll provide them with links to my Twitter which is @audioalchemist_. Don't forget the underscore and will give them a LinkedIn address as well.

John: Okay, great. And you're happy to hear from anyone that would have a follow up question?

Steve: I am forever a student. And it's not only the questions, it's the ideas. It's the pieces of research. It's, you know, anything to further the knowledge in this area.

John: Okay, wonderful. I really enjoyed talking to you, Steve, so thank you so much for being on the show.

Steve: Thank you, John. Appreciate it so much.

John: Okay, that's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling a friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks


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