Earconography sound design

Device showing an ear and volume controls.

Advanced mobile computing platforms such as BlackBerry 10 not only include a UI, they also provide a sonic language that is represented by audio notifications, event feedback, and system sounds.

BlackBerry 10 is the world's first platform to offer the universal earconography approach to sound design for standardized audio notification events. A universal sound language has existed for decades in the analog world, for example, door bells, alarms, phone ringers, and desk bells. Anyone who hears these sounds knows what is being communicated immediately.

The goal of earconography is to achieve a sonic language with all audio notification events so that the user is more informed about the who, what, why, and when of an event. You can build the same kind of familiarity with your app's notifications by following universal sound patterns, but with the aesthetic freedom of slight sonic variations.

Consider the visual language of a graphical UI. An icon of an envelope can be different colors, have a stamp on it (or not), or be tilted 25 degrees, but as long as it still looks like an envelope, users will know what it represents. Same story for sounds.

You can build variation into the base sounds easily if you think of each sound effect as having three layers:

  • X is the fixed structural pattern that identifies a specific earconography sonic event that occurs (for example, phone, text, or reminder). This is like the structural pattern of Morse code, which is specific and different for each letter, but isn’t really about sound. Morse code can even be ‘played’ by a light source.
  • Y introduces textures and instruments to provide tonal variation and sonic identity to ensure each event is unique and differentiated from all other notifications in your suite.
  • Z is the treatment layer that provides a variable amount of waveform modification. This includes effects processing such as reverb, delay, modulation, gain, panning, and Doppler. These effects provide more complexity, indicate urgency, and allow you to customize and personalize the sound.

BlackBerry 10 base sounds

Email messages

A four-note ascending pitch flam (1/16th notes at 200bpm) pattern with equal timing intervals, in the mid range of the assortment (the default email notification is G3, D4, G4) with a natural sounding medium sustain that is not phone-like. The Y-layer has warm and rich instrumentation, on top of the baseline brand sound.


A two-note ascending pitch pattern in a higher range than email messages (E3, B4) with a moderately tight release/sustain. On top of the brand baseline instrument, the Y-layer uses clarity bells to provide differentiation from the email message notification.

BBM Video

A hybrid notification language, where the universal ringer is applied to the standard BBM pattern. A two-note descending repeated two times (E4, A3, rest, E3, A3) with a longer, phone ringer style sustain/release that is repeated several times like a phone ringer. The Y-layer is the same as BBM to associate BBM Video with BBM.


A one-note, single shot (F#4) with a tight, short release. The single note is appropriate given the frequency of text messages. The Y-layer instrumentation used here could be similar to the phone notification to associate these two classic cell phone features.


A two four-note traditional telephone alternating ring pattern, with equal timing intervals and duration in the upper range (G4, D4, G4, D4, G4, D4, G4) and a longer sustain/release. Additional melodies and patterns can be explored for additional variations. The Y-layer should contain high frequency instrumentation for definition and transmission, as well as tonal character for fullness and balance.


An alert with three equally spaced notes of the same frequency with a super tight sustain/release. Equal silence is added between repeats, with two repeats minimum in a higher register range for improved transmission. (A4, rest, A4, rest, A4). This notification is stark, with a ‘system-like’ style and sound to differentiate it from notifications that orginate from an outside source (for example, phone or messages).


An attention getting alert with a two-note ascending lead-in of tight release, followed by slower timer pattern (three equal interval chimes), like the hourly chimes of a clock in 1/4 notes at 190bpm with a medium sustain (G3,G4, D4,rest, D4, rest, D4). The Y-layer effect sounds like a gentle, yet persistent chime, to create association with existing real-world reminders, such as the notification tone when a car door is opened.

Third party/generic

A four-note ascending/descending pattern with the first note accented, played in a broken rhythm, differentiated from email/messaging with equal timing and a moderately tight release (G3, rest G3, D4, C4). No Y-layer is applied, to avoid confusion with applications from your brand.

Best practices

Your files should have as little silence as possible at the head and tail of the file. Any silence should be uniform to promote a linear playback performance.

Pushed notification effects should be .m4a format, with a 48 khz sampling rate, and should use either a constant or average bit rate of no lower than 128 kbps.

UI feedback effects should be full-resolution .wav format in order to achieve low latency playback for responsive user feedback.

A good use of sounds is a rare use of sounds. Don't include feedback for something that happens every few seconds in your app, like the movement from one screen to another, or the activation of a control.

Above all, your notifications should not be annoying. Choose instrumentation, pitch, and volume that can be heard several times a day without annoying the user.

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