Sumanth Gopinath

“Beep: Listening to the Digital Watch”

Abstract: The most thoroughgoing transformation in the recent history of the consumer timepiece was its digitization in the late 1960s. Thanks to piezoelectric quartz crystals, whose regular oscillation is measured by a microprocessor, consumer watches profoundly gained in accuracy. Quartz watches soon obviated the intricate internal movements of older mechanical watches.
But watch digitization is colloquially understood through the subsequent replacement of the clock face with numerical displays, which developed over the course of the 1970s. Through its visual transformation, the digital watch became an iconic image of the early 1980s, a fad treated in print and moving-image media, with the figure of the (usually white, heterosexual) male computer geek dominating such representations. Relatively absent in these contexts, however, is the sound of the digital watch: its beep. This sound emerged as a by-product of the quartz-regulated oscillations, yielding a consistent frequency. By convention, watch beeps were not only used as alarms but also to ring in the hour.
This paper attempts a history of the digital watch’s beep, reflecting upon its sonic qualities and the social contexts in which it was heard. In doing so, it explores both standard digital watch alarms and more esoteric variants, some of which incorporated simple, single-oscillator melodies highly reminiscent of early monophonic cellphone ringtones. What emerges is an examination of petty labour resistance at the white-collar workplace, shifts in the capitalist world-system following the onset of the great downturn of 1970–1973, and the sounds of a global, tinkling treble culture produced by miniature synthesizers.

Bio: Sumanth Gopinath is Associate Professor of Music Theory, University of Minnesota. He is the author of The Ringtone Dialectic: Economy and Cultural Form (MIT Press, 2013) and co-editor, with Jason Stanyek, of The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies (Oxford University Press, 2014). His writings on Steve Reich, musical minimalism, Marxism and music scholarship, the Nike+ Sport Kit, the ringtone industry, Bob Dylan, and Benjamin Britten have appeared in various scholarly journals and edited collections. He is working on a book project on musical minimalism and is conducting research on sound in new and formerly new media, Bob Dylan’s musicianship, the aesthetics of smoothness, and the music of the Scottish composer James Dillon.