Music is a powerful storytelling medium. It can bring back a thousand memories as it lights up the brain’s visual cortex, making listeners feel as though they’ve stepped into a time machine after hearing a song years later. The right music can even release the mood enhancing chemical dopamine, so it’s no wonder that airlines are transforming something as seemingly trivial as background boarding music into a powerful branding tool that travellers could feel bonded to for years to come.
The world of airline music is filled with distinctive, nostalgic, highly-produced and sometimes quirky tunes, making it a fascinating microcosm of how companies leverage the power of sonic branding to communicate their values and build loyalty through sound recognition. Though some carriers still play commercially available tracks as passengers hop onto their planes, many are now creating a “sonic signature” - a tailor-made melody that taps into musical nostalgia, tells the story of their brand and sets them apart from their competitors.
Music as a signifier of change
In a studio on the fjords of Norway, Norwegian Air Shuttle, in partnership with London-based audio branding company Adelphoi, assembled more than a dozen local musicians, including singers, an orchestra and a choir, to record a unique tune that would be heard by millions of travellers at the beginning of their journeys. The carrier, which had previously used pop songs in lieu of tailor-made boarding music, decided that it was time to craft a sonic identity that stirred up images of Norway – such as the country’s rich topography with its bountiful forests, mountain plateaus, extensive coastal areas and rivers – while also appealing to the millions of international travellers that flew with the airline.
“The real challenge is that this project is going to be a piece of music that the brand uses for the next ten to 20 years into the future, so for us it’s all about creating music that is timeless, and means as much today as it does tomorrow” said Adelphoi’s head of brands Max De Lucia in a behind-the-scenes video.
The result was a 30-minute track titled “Northern Colours” - a tune that is now heard by almost every passenger when they hop on to a Norwegian Air flight. It is a mellow, clean and soft track that is uniquely Norwegian and aims to soothe the nerves of anxious, turbulence-weary travellers.
“I think the whole process of being here and working for a global brand and with local musicians is what Norwegian is all about,” said the song’s composer, Joel Krozer, in the same behind-the-scenes video. “I was looking at imagery of the hills and fjords in and around Norway and I wanted a melody that reflected that to some extent.”
The new track, which launched in early 2018, came just as the airline had marked its tenth anniversary and was ushering in a period of change and rapid global expansion. It had inaugurated many international routes, and had established itself as a high-frequency domestic carrier. In the same year, the carrier also changed its strategy from growth to profitability. The tune created by Norwegian Air Shuttle and Adelphoi is a signifier reflecting these changes – it preserved the airline’s national identity but the sound is also modern, reflecting the carrier’s ambitions for international growth at the time.
A flagship carrier’s boarding music brings home onboard
Malaysia Airlines has turned its cabin into a cultural experience through a recently launched three-minute soundtrack that lures travellers into a journey exploring the many unique and distinctive cultural identities that exist in Malaysia. The new anthem, which will be played as travellers board their flight, is an ode to Malaysian culture as it blends together a medley of traditional instruments, making it a powerful ambassador for the flagship carrier.
The new music comes at a notable time for the national airline. The carrier recently shifted gears by launching a series of initiatives aimed at stimulating interest in domestic travel in the wake of unprecedented international border shutdowns due to the pandemic. Airlines around the world have buckled up for a tumultuous time period as travel has come to a screeching halt, prompting them to look for new ways to flourish and revive confidence in air travel. It’s an opportunity for carriers to transform their brand and encourage customer loyalty as they adapt to the “new normal” in the face of an uncertain future.
Against this backdrop, the carrier, which has previously used a combination of tailor-made songs and commercially available tracks as its boarding music, has created a tune in partnership with Aeroplay Entertainment that encapsulates Malaysia's cultural identity. The airline turned to a diverse array of traditional instruments to create its new sonic signature.
The melody begins with the calming sounds of a boat-shaped lute called a sape – a traditional instrument used mainly by the Orang Ulu tribe who live in longhouses that line the rivers of Central Borneo. Passengers will also hear the melodic sound of the erhu, a two-stringed bowed musical instrument also known as the Chinese violin. This spike fiddle has a rich history of over 4,000 years. Other instruments include a gambus (a string instrument popularly featured in Malay folk music), the gamelan (an ensemble of percussion instruments originating from Java), guzheng (an ancient Chinese stringed instrument), veena (an ancient Indian stringed instrument), and the sitar (a centuries-old stringed instrument from northern India).
“Boarding music is not just soothing and relaxing; it carries the identity of the airline and sets the tone for the journey,” said Prakash Johari, CEO and managing director of Aeroplay Entertainment.
Turning a plane into a musical instrument
When Singapore Airlines launched a new route to Seattle last year – a city that is home to major musical influences such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Jimi Hendrix – the carrier decided to pay tribute to the city’s musical heritage by inviting a young Seattle-based DJ and musician, Chong the Nomad, to record a truly original track for the promotional video. Tasked with making beats using an airplane, the musician recorded sounds from inside and outside one Singapore Airlines’ Airbus A350 aircraft while it sat on the tarmac at Changi Airport.
In a behind-the-scenes video, we see Chong turn the plane wheel into a drum set and use the cockpit as a turntable. “It was a dream being in Singapore and making music out of an airplane,” said Chong in the video. The final track blends together sounds like the roar of the engine, the buckling of the seat belt, the clink-clank from silverware, taps on the plane’s tyre, and the whirs of the cockpit controls. Chong mixed these sounds as beats and brass to create a playful track filled with nostalgic sounds that any frequent flyer would recognize.
“To piece together all the sounds and to try to figure out which ones to manipulate, as well as just how much to do so, became quite difficult,” she told the airline’s Silverkris magazine. However, it proved to be an exciting experience for the young musician. “I even got to enter the cockpit, which was a little scary. I had a lot of fun trying to get creative with some of the noises; the tray table sliding out sounded almost like a record scratch, which I was so happy to get.”
The track is a creative collaboration part of the airline’s campaign titled “Seattle Sounds Even Better Now”.
Cover Image: Daniel Mccullough / Unsplash
Writer | Seher Asaf
Seher is a Hong Kong-based freelance journalist who writes about aviation, transport and travel.