10.30.2008

Electronic Beeps In The Office

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:48 am

I was sitting at my desk the other day, minding my own billings, when I heard two electronic beeps go off at the same time. The first was the printer in the copy room, beeping to indicate the job it was printing was finished; the second was the microwave in the kitchen down the hall, beeping to indicate the food it was cooking was finished. In any case, they beeped at the same time. The interval between the two beeps was a minor second (e.g. the distance between C and C-sharp), but it was a very small one–the notes were closer together than a half-step. A minor second is defined as 100 cents; I don’t really know, but maybe this was 70 cents. (For prior TLB discussions of tuning and temperament, click here.) It was a very small interval, and a very shrill and displeasing sound.

I wonder who creates the beeps in machines like that. Do the engineers or manufacturers know what note their beep will be? Do they design it with a particular note in mind? Does anyone other than me care?

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Comments

  1. Gravatar

    rumcreeters on 10.30.2008

    I care. I think you’d be interested in listening to an episode of This American Life (one of my favorite public radio shows). In one of the acts, a man talks about mapping the world through all the sounds that go on around us.
    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=110

  2. Gravatar

    rumcreeters on 10.30.2008

    I care. I think you’d be interested in listening to an episode of This American Life (one of my favorite public radio shows). In one of the acts, a man talks about mapping the world through all the sounds that go on around us.
    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=110

  3. Gravatar

    ryan fleming on 11.03.2008

    Interesting observation. How were you able to tell that it was less than a minor second? When notes are that close together, it just sounds unsettling. I don’t think I would be able to tell the difference between 100 cents and 70 cents.

    I am interested as to why certain machines produce certain notes when they sound. I will have to look into that and see if it was planned, or if the engineer just took a random off-the-shelf beeper and put in on the machine.

  4. Gravatar

    AJ Harbison on 11.04.2008

    Fleming:
    It was close enough to tell that it was a different tone, but it sounded smaller than a properly tuned minor second would be. You would be able to tell the difference, if you heard it; the typical human ear can detect differences down to about 6 cents or so.

    Let me know what you discover about engineers and beepers!

    AJ Harbison

  5. Gravatar

    Jerome Santucci on 01.26.2010

    The engineers at Apple computer are very conscious of the “start-up tone” their computers make. They have retooled and retuned the chord many times. There is a short discussion of the evolution of the start-up sound in the documentary “Welcome to Macintosh.” You can hear a sequence of the sounds on YouTube.

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