... essays

rand's ramblings on this and that


Brian Eno and the Microsoft Sound

The other day, poking around my computer, I happened to click on the "Properties" dialogue box of "The Microsoft Sound".  This little sound file, which plays each time Windows 95 starts, is familiar to all users of the operating system (at least those users that have a sound card on their PC's).  I first got a look at Windows 95 three years ago and the little sound, heard hundreds, perhaps thousands of times since then, has become as familiar and mundane as the other audio of my daily life -- the alarm clock, the ring of my telephone, the sound of my upstairs apartment neighbor working out on some tortuous exercise machine.  But there's something different about the Microsoft Sound -- something erie, disturbing, and disconcerting.

It surprised me to examine the properties of the Microsoft Sound and discover that the "Author" of the sound isn't some Microsoftie, locked away in a room in Redmond with a Visual C++ laptop in one hand and a synthesizer in the other.  The Sound was created by the eminent and well-known composer of aural wallpaper for airports and other bland spaces, Brian Eno.  It brought to mind the ad campaign when Windows 95 was released and the exorbident amount of cash paid to those living statues of rock antiquity, the Rolling Stones, to "Start" us all up.  I was expecting screaming guitars and white-man's faux blues when I installed Windows 95.  Instead, I got calming New Age synthesizer.

How much money has Brian Eno made from the "Microsoft Sound"?  Was he paid a flat fee?  Is the composition registered with ASCAP or BMI?  Think about it -- as Windows 95 has become the dominant operating system on the PC platform in the US (and perhaps worldwide), Eno's royalties from the Sound could be enough to buy the former Soviet Union.  In the heralded capitalistic system created for the protection of very well known composers, musicians, record producers, and music corporate types, Eno has the possibility to earn his keep in several ways.  Perhaps Eno received a flat fee for the sound as a contract worker for Microsoft.  In that case, he could charge a fortune since he would be giving up all rights to the Sound in the future.  (One wonders if, in this case, he received any benefits such as stock options or health insurance, just like a full-time, permanent Microsoft employee.)  Eno could be receiving a royalty for each copy of the Microsoft Sound sold with Windows 95, similar to the moneys received by musicians and their managers when they sell a compact disc (or "LP" in my day).  There could also be mechanical royalties involved -- did you realize that a composer and musician receives funds each time a recording is played on a jukebox?  Is a record kept of the number of times the Microsoft Sound is played on our machines to tally the annual amount of Microsoft tithing to post-modern composers?

Perhaps it is no surprise that Brian Eno was called on to create (is compose the right word here?) The Microsoft Sound.  Eno has built an entire career on high-art music that the listener is not supposed to actually hear.  It is no coincidence that just over the hill from Redmond, the offices of  Microsoft, is Seattle, the international headquarters for Muzak, that corporate purveyor of aural wallpaper for elevators and, yes, airports.   It is interesting to note that the people who started the alternative "grunge" rock sound to rebel against the plastic world of Michael Jackson and New Wave originally worked at Muzak in Seattle.

Far more interesting than the economics of the Eno-Gates connection are the questions raised by the nuances of the composition itself -- just what is the Microsoft Sound?  I remember the first time I heard it.  Visiting a friend who was Beta testing Windows 95 and had just set it up on his system, he started the computer, the desktop appeared and I said, "My God--that sounds like something from Days of Our Lives!"  Since then, I've asked several people what it sounds like, and most agree that it sounds like some kind of music from a soap opera.

Recently, however, I have started thinking about that observation further -- the Microsoft Sound isn't just music from a soap opera, it is a piece of music that would serve a very specific purpose in a daytime drama.  The Sound is not something that would be used to open or close a soap opera, but would probably be used as a subtle "bridge" between scenes.  It starts with a gentle crescendo, implying a note of completion but is unresolved and continues, not to a resolution, but sliding into a statement that repeats and fades into the background.

That particular quality of the Microsoft Sound is what makes it so disconcerting.  I often wonder if it taps into some deeply hidden inner child within us.  I imagine Bill Gates meeting with Eno and the marketing and ergonomic experts of Microsoft to choose the Start Up Sound for Windows 95.  Gates hears it, subconsciously going back to a childhood filled with erector sets, toy calculators, and perhaps a toy mainframe computer with tiny little toy punch cards that started him thinking about DOS.  A television plays in the background as the inner child Gates plays computer and a soap on the tube transitions from one scene to another.  Back in the present, in Redmond, Gates nods and says, "Yes ... this one."

Considering the predominance of Windows computers in the home and workplace and the number of times we hear the Microsoft Sound each day, don't you think it may awaken that same deep subconscious inner child within all of us?  We arrive at work and turn on our computer; we hear the Sound and begin the day.  Our computer shuts down promptly at 5:00 pm, silent, with no "Shut Down" sound.  We go home, turn on our computer, the Microsoft Sound acting as a "bridge" between the scene at work that just ended and the scene at home that is just beginning.  The process repeats when we go to work the next day.

Windows 95 has come a long way in the past two years and so have we.  The OJ Simpson Trial.  The confrontational talk show hosts like Jerry Springer.  The sex scandals at the White House.  The daytime drama of fiction has sprung to life in prime time television and the evening newscasts.  The Microsoft Sound, in its own way, provides a soundtrack for the soap opera that is the days of our lives.


The author is an Academic Computing Specialist at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  He once estimated that he hears the Microsoft Sound at least forty times each day.

(c) 23.March.1998