The T-MOBILE and T trademarks, and the T-MOBILE music jingle, are registered trademarks owned by Deutsche Telekom AG, and are used with permission. It plays more times than your phone rings.
He was Maxim.
It’s the T-Mobile sonic logo.
And on the line is Lance Massey.
“It’s the ‘ding-a-ling-a-ling’ tune, identified with T-Mobile for many years, written by Lance Massey, founder of NeuroPop, an aural therapy business that develops “health and wellness” products in audio form. The winner of a global competition, it was based upon the T-Mobile logo featuring gray dots and a pink letter T. “I used one of the NeuroPop algorithms to assign a middle C to a dot, and the pink T got the major third above it,” says Lance. How long did it take him? “I had years of research and training to know what to do when the time came,” he says, “but when the time came, it took me about 15 seconds.”1
Massey’s LinkedIn page says:
I’m not normal. Yes, I can architect and develop software, web, and mobile applications from concept to deployment, and I can create custom music for global brands and media. This has honed my perspective on company challenges and leads to unique, efficient, cost effective, and highly creative solutions. After over a decade of experience launching everything from Flash scripts to webapps used by millions of people I can now apply that perspective across multiple domains—tech, business, product, branding, strategy, etc. As CTO of The Limbic Group, I’ve architected and built SMS, iOS, and Android apps with React Native, socket-io, node/express, MongoDB. Fun fact: During my tenure in the New York music scene, I wrote the T-Mobile ringtone, making me more played than the Beatles.2
So how did “a little redneck kid in Tennessee”3 come to write one of the most famous sonic logos?
I was studying under Gary Nelson at Oberlin Conservatory, and he got me interested in synthesizers, algorithmic composition, those sorts of things. Then I went on to become a commercial writer way back in the eighties, and I just carried all of that information with me. So basically, I wrote commercials for almost 15 years. Then after doing the T-Mobile logo, I retired because I thought I was going to make a ton of money, which ended up sadly being false. So when the money ran out, I switched to being a programmer and a tech entrepreneur. Which is probably why you can’t find any information on me anymore, because I technically dropped out of the music business almost 20 years ago, and only recently started getting my production chops back up again to see if I could have a second go at it.4
What does he remember about the creation of the now famous T-Mobile sonic logo?
So it’s one of those things where it literally took me less than 15 seconds to come up with it, but it was the 15 years of experience before that led to it. Again, the algorithmic composition. I was a staff composer at McHale Barone, and Chris and Joe had done this commercial for Siemens Electronics in Europe, which caught the attention of the Jorgen Hausler who was creative director at the time. So he invited them to the pitch. They invited me to the pitch. Jorgen came over, showed me the brand guidelines, and he said, “We got a bunch of gray squares. We got these pink Ts. We don’t know how many squares there are going to be. We don’t know what order they’re going to be in or anything like that.” So I just developed a stupid simple algorithm of if you see a gray square, it’s going to be a middle C. If you see a pink T, it’ll be the E above it. So whatever order it came in, it would always work. So it could be “Ba da da da da,” or “Ba da da da da,” of “Ba da da da da da.” That was it. That’s the whole story.5
So it really only took 15 seconds? How does that happen?
My unfortunately late partner, Dr. Horowitz, he got me on to the concept of multimodal association, where it’s like you associate the visuals with the audio, or a movement with a sound, or anything like that. And I just naturally was inclined that way. So the whole thing of, “Oh, I’ll just associate the gray squares with the pink Ts.” Right? And every time I’ve done anything remotely like this, I’ve always just fallen back on there’s going to be emotion, there’s going to be a color or something that can be associated with sound and movement. And just always start from there. And usually it’s not that complicated a process. After that, it just becomes a matter of personal taste, do the creative directors like it?6
Why does he think we’re still talking about it?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. I woke up one day a few years ago and realized I have been played more than any composer in history, right? Hundreds of millions of times a day that logo’s going off somewhere. And I mean obviously the biggest part of it is the fact that T-Mobile are successful, and they keep throwing money at it. I mean, I wish they’d throw it at me, but that’s a huge part of the success. I think the serendipity of the simplicity of their visual logo combined with the simplicity of the audio logo and how well they worked together, that probably plays a big part of it. But this is all conjecture on my part. I honestly don’t have an answer for why it says successful. To me it was just another piano riff that I walked over and played.7
And what does he think of now when he hears it?
You would ask. I think, “There’s me not getting paid again.” That’s what I think. Oh, geez. Yeah. It’s tough one. My wife brings it up every few months. It’s like, “Why aren’t you getting royalties for that?” And I’m like, “That was the deal.”8
Nobody could have known. I mean, T-Mobile at that time was a little company somewhere in Germany. Well, a big company, but only in Germany. It wasn’t until after I’ve signed the contract that the next year after that they rolled out around the world and bought up all the cell phone carriers. So nobody knew. I mean, they probably knew how big they were going to get, but nobody outside of that did.9
Does he think that it’s even more relevant today? Not only his sonic logo, but all sonic logos? Why don’t more brands have them?
I don’t understand why it’s still an uphill battle. Why sonic branding is still an uphill battle. Why we have to educate people as to why it matters. Sound is so directly connected to emotions. And it’s not subconscious, it’s preconscious. The auditory system in the brain works so fast. It’s like you hear a stick snap behind you. Before you can even think, you’ve turned around, your heart rate’s up, your pupils are dilated, you are ready to go. Right? And that all happens in less than, I think, what is it, 20 milliseconds? Right? And to me for brands to not take advantage of that kind of power, I just don’t get it. So I’m a huge proponent of sonic branding and because sound tweaks the emotion so much, it’s like, a prime example, Virgin airlines. You get out of your Uber to go into the door and you head up to the counter. There should be some kind of soundscape there that makes you feel you’re safe. You interact with the people at the counter. They should have some sort of soundscape around them. It doesn’t have to be music can be music to make you feel safe and to make you feel like, “Oh, the Virgin experience is a fantastic experience.” Right? Because at the end of the day, every brand touch point, all that matters is how you feel when you walk away. And will you remember it later? And by far the most effective way to do that is with sound. So it boggles my mind why we still have to educate people about this.10
What are some of his favorite sonic logos?
I have to confess, I only watch movies now. I have not seen a commercial in years. But let me, let me kind of rack the brain. I mean, obviously Walter’s [Werzowa] logo [Intel]. Because Walter’s logo ticks all the boxes that I do, which is, it’s got that motion, it interacts directly with the visuals. The four syllables, the four notes, the way you pronounce the words, all of that. By far, the classic NBC logo is still the godfather of us all. Recently, and actually a funny story, one logo which ticks all my boxes, I mean they did everything that I thought, and to me it was a major fail, was Honda. Because they’ve got the piano notes “Ba-da,” like, “Aah,” it hurt. But I can’t tell you why. I mean all the things that go through my head whenever I’m trying to create something, they did exactly what I would’ve done, but they came up with something that I would not have presented to a client. And let’s see. I haven’t seen anything recently that really makes me think, “Wow, these guys nailed it.” Or “That’s going to live forever.”11
Actually, yeah. Netflix. That’s a good one. Because it’s got the weight behind it. There’s just such a power in those sounds. I consider it more of a sound design. I forgot about Dr. Moorer [THX]. I used to be a big fan of his way back in the early days. I forget the name of that machine he invented for Lucas [Audio Signal Processor]. I remember back in the 1980s when I was still heavily into the academic side of things, I was reading Computer Music Journal back when it was a technical paper, and god, I cannot remember the name of that machine that he developed for them [ASP]. But it was amazing. It was a beautiful piece of work. Yeah. I got down into the circuit diagrams, into the math and all of that, and just was pulling the whole thing apart and wished that I had the budget to get one.12
You were at NeuroPop when you did the T-Mobile logo right?
NeuroPop started officially right after this logo, but I’ve been friends with Dr. Horowitz, jeez since I was 22 or 23, so at the time it had already been 20 years that we’ve known each other. And then this logo, like I said, he introduced me to the idea of multimodal association. And then so I asked him, I said, “Hey, can we do this with other things? Can we actually create sounds to mess with people’s heads?” And being an auditory neuroscientist and a little bit crazy, he said, “Sure.” And so that started that adventure. And actually our biggest success with that got rolled into an app called Sleepy Genius where we developed algorithms and techniques for naturally inducing sleep. And that did quite well. And it actually reached number one in the app store for a moment. We released some art projects, and I’m still carrying on some that... He passed away back in January, but I’m still carrying on some of his work. We developed audio algorithms for pain relief, and so I’m trying to figure out how to commercialize that.13
Why has he and others moved into music and health?
I mean I can’t speak for the others, but if I was going to say there’s a common thread, it’s that as creatives, but as analytical people, the medical profession is an easy transition because there is all the tech behind medicine. And I can’t say it about all musicians, but of the people you’ve mentioned, there’s a caring that goes on. So it seems like a natural transition. It’s like we care about how people feel. We care about using our skills to improve lives. We love the technology. In my case, I love programming and computers and I would say in Walter’s case he came from a family of doctors, so he was probably just genetically inclined to be a healthcare provider. I mean obviously I’m speaking out of turn, speaking for Walter, but that’s my inclination.14
Does he think that music has color or there’s a color to represent a notes?
To me it’s more about, again, it is the association, but it’s the shape of things, right? So the gray square and the pink T to go back to T-Mobile. And Jorgen actually emphasized this. He said, “There is a specific ratio between the height of the square and the height of the T.” And so I translated that dimension and sound. So for me it’s not so much color as it is the space of things or the shape of things, or how they move through space and time. So for me personally, it would be much easier to create the sound of a triangle than it would be to create the sound of red.15
Finally, any funny stories? Does he use the logo to get him into fine restaurants?
So far, not for restaurant reservations, nobody knows me. I have used it to open doors. I’ve got a commercial representative right now who’s shopping some of my songs for TV shows, and a big selling point is that he’s the guy that wrote T-Mobile. And so people pay attention. Right? But in terms of is it stuck in my ear, my favorite one of those was Maxim magazine. Their 100th issue. They did a spot on me and it opened up with meet Lance Massey, the sadistic bastard that unleashed the T-Mobile audio logo. It was only like one column, but it was funny. But I just thought it was funny the way they started it out. And so that’s how I’m known.16