Should the Web be Wired for Sound?

The web has a slightly awkward relationship with audio. If you’re (un)lucky enough to remember the web in the late 1990′s, every other website played a damn awful midi track when the page loaded. It was shocking — especially on business PCs with crap sound cards.

Website sound was eventually killed off when:

  • Internet Explorer’s monopoly ended. Other browsers didn’t always support .WAV or .MID files so Flash became the most reliable alternative — and that posed its own set of problems.
  • Developers realized that sound didn’t necessarily improve their sites. The effects were trashed along with frames, marquees, blink tags, splash pages and stupid animated “page under construction” GIFs.

Today, developers rarely consider sound unless they’re creating a music or gaming website. But we’re all using cloud-based applications and sound has long been a usability feature on the desktop. Would users appreciate a quick ‘bong’ when a calendar event occurs, a ‘chirp’ when a new tweet arrives, or a ‘siren’ when Internet connectivity drops at a critical point when finishing your important spreadsheet in Google Docs?

I think sound will make a major comeback on the web — possibly this year. However, for it to happen:

  1. There needs to be widespread adoption of the HTML5 <audio> tag. Few developers will consider application sound effects unless they’re easy to implement and reliable in most browsers — including Internet Explorer.
  2. Sound needs to be unobtrusive and aid usability. Developers should use it sparingly: the odd email ‘tah-da’ alert is fine, but let’s not return to the days of page-load concertos or a ‘clunk’ on every click.
  3. Web application developers should offer a sound on/off option — possibly with “off” being the default.
  4. A sound must play the instant an event occurs. Where necessary, the application should pre-cache effects so they can be played on demand. Remy Sharp has investigated this issue: see Audio Sprites — a technique for loading multiple effects in a single audio file.
  5. Vendors should implement intelligent sound controls within browsers. Volume controls or a “disable sound” option would be a good start. It could go further, e.g. inactive tabs could play muffled or lower volume effects based on how recently the page was viewed.

I admit I’m not the best person to predict the future of sound on the web. I switch off all desktop and application effects because they quickly become irritating when you’re using a PC for 10 hours a day. But, in my experience, most users seem to like sound effects (or don’t know how to disable them!)

Web application effects may even be more useful and less intrusive than desktop applications. Unlike my email client, IDE or Photoshop, I rarely keep a web app open all day.

Do you think sound will make a comeback on the web? Do you want it? Will it aid usability? Will it be abused? Please leave your comments or cast your vote on the SitePoint poll.

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  • thefryingpan

    Hell. No.

    • fn64

      i’ll double this.
      hell no!

  • str@maphpia.com

    Yea! Introducing in the new HTML5 the oldschool sounds! I don’t know why they disapear. I loved opening a splash/loading page just to wait and open the real page and stare at the monitor to listen to the 2MB midi :D

  • http://www.brothercake.com/ James Edwards

    UI sounds effects — great — but music that plays without request is pure evil!

  • Tim

    “Would users appreciate a quick ‘bong’ when a calendar event occurs” – best line ever!!!!

  • Anonymous

    Sound is welcome when it serves a purpose. One good example: http://time.is/

  • Tarh

    Volume controls or a “disable sound” option would be a good start.

    FWIW, you can already accomplish this using nothing more than Windows itself. Just click on the “sound” icon in the system tray and click “Mixer.” Assuming that your browser has played some sort of sound since the last restart, you’ll see the browser icon in here. You can adjust the volume slider and/or mute the application independent of all other applications and the system master volume.

    • Arkh

      But imagine you want sound for one webpage and not another ? Your windows mixer solution is dead. You’d need a browser sound mixer.
      Yup, you read it first here.

  • rpeg

    As a sometimes sound designer and developer, I do hope sound finds a firm but modest role on the web. There’s a lot to be done with UI and “presentation” focused websites.
    Also, for some of us sound is a less intrusive option than video which requires even more of your attention.

  • http://www.mikehealy.com.au cranial-bore

    I think sound effects can help usability, but I would definitely definitely not allow twitter to make a noise every time a tweet comes in. Imagine the distraction! Especially for people who follow thousands.

    Also having a 6 open tabs with pages that poll for updates could become a real cacophony of little noises.

  • http://www.megapixeljourneys.com/ MJ Pieterse

    mmm… disagree!
    the only time when sound is actually appreciated on a website is for instance the ‘click’ sound that happens when someone sends you an IM on FB for instance. Especially when you have it running in the back you actually know when someone is talking to you and you are not ‘ignoring’ them, but other than that… no no no.
    I think the only place where sound should actually occur on websites, is when it is a band or dj website, but only also then with the user activating the sound. I run multiple tabs and different browsers at the same time almost all of the time, so if a site keeps on making sounds when a new tweet comes in i’ll go crazy.
    some website are already slow, especially for people using slow connections, now imagine all of those sound bites have to load, even if they are all in one file.
    i do think the only benefit will be if they make tag cross browser to all browsers so designers and developers working on those band and dj websites it will make it easier instead of having to use flash, as not everyone has that and most companies block flash.

  • nigeljohnwade

    I’d like a quick ‘bong’ every time an email arrives :)

    • http://cfajohnson.com cfaj

      Use a mail client rather than web mail, and you can set that (at least you can in alpine).

  • Joe

    I’m afraid some developers will abuse the new technology and go crazy with noisy sound and terrible canvas illustrations.
    I’m still in favor of XHTML strict. Let’s keep the web semantic.
    I’d rather see social media icons plastered on home pages than listen to irrelevant
    sound. You might as well bring back the page counter and the old flash intro pages.

    • rpeg

      Hopefully we can just encourage those developers to not act stupid. I’m crossing my fingers the early days of the web won’t come back as new features come up.

  • Wolf_22

    Sound can be a great thing! It’s all a matter of how it’s used.

  • Sphamandla

    Sound should be at the users choice but by default is a no go it annoys some people including me.