Why is That iPhone “Don’t Blink” Ad So Damn Cool?
I don’t care about the headphone jack. Listen to the music:
Almost every part of the ad score is variations on a single rhythm — that Bump. Bump. Bump, bump, a-CHAK you hear in the opening seconds. It’s a cool rhythm. But what’s cool about it?
It’s not pitch. This is mostly about rhythm, the division of time into bits. If you have four beats per bar and divide each of them into four 16th notes, you can think of the bar as having 16 available slots. In each one, you have a choice: hit the drum, or hit it hard (accented), or do nothing. 16 slots, 16 choices in each bar:
Just as melody and harmony draw on 12 available pitches, most rhythm (in 4/4, the most common meter) is created from grouping these 16 clicks. In this case, it’s 4+4+3+3+2:
1234 1234 123 123 12
Two groups of 4, then two groups of 3, then a group of 2. This has the effect of establishing a steady beat (1234 1234), then throwing you off balance a bit (123 123 12), then returning to steady in the next bar (1234 1234). On top of that, there’s a feeling of acceleration as the groups get shorter.
The combined result is two confident steps, then trip-tumble forward a little, then a smooth recovery into the next measure.
Okay, bad example. More like this:
We’ve been here before, in the post on The Evolution of Cool:
Our cerebellar timekeeper determines how regular a sound is. If it stays predictable — dripping water, chirping crickets — we feel confident and secure. If it becomes less predictable or changes in intensity, we feel unsettled, possibly threatened.
The beats [of a Sousa march] are regular. Your cerebellum is tapping its foot, predicting every beat, right on the money. It makes you feel safe, confident, in control, but no one would call it cool.
The Sacrificial Dance from The Rite of Spring is jerky and angular, with unpredictable rhythms and sudden changes in intensity — the musical embodiment of anxiety and terror. Your cerebellum is freaked out by the utter inability to predict the next note. The music is doing what it’s supposed to do, but you wouldn’t call it cool.
The music we identify as cool splits the difference, combining a steady predictable beat with unpredictable departures from that beat. It’s flirting with the remote sense of danger without actually endangering you.
If music establishes a beat, then throws you around a bit — backbeat accents, unexpected hits around the beat, changing patterns — it gives a little thrill to your cerebellar timekeeper, tickling that part of you that listens for the irregular sounds of danger, then pulling you back to the safety of a steady beat before dangling you over the cliff again.
The ad throws a few extra stumbles in to keep you off balance on the larger scale. Start tapping right at the beginning and keep it rock steady. You’ll feel yourself trip over a notch in time around 4 seconds:
Feel that?? One extra 16th rest was inserted, a single click in time, throwing you behind the beat. That gives your cerebellar timekeeper a little thrill. That’s cool.