Do You Care if a Famous Composer Wrote Your EV\u2019s Soundtrack?

Earlier this year, BMW announced that it had teamed up with Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer to devise the sound of its Concept i4, which previews an upcoming all-electric sedan we expect to see in the not-too-distant future.

After kicking this news around in my head for a while, I’ve swung back and forth from thinking it’s a total gimmick to concluding that it’s a perfectly logical move. At this particular moment, I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it.

Zimmer is responsible for everything from the infamous bwaaaaaaa of the Inception soundtrack to the score of The Lion King. He has depth and range and, more to the point here, he’s skilled at using music—or more generally, sound—to generate or enhance specific emotions in an audience; a shelf full of awards for his work in Hollywood attests to this. He’s also suitably Teutonic, having been born in Frankfurt back when it was still West Germany. You really couldn’t pick a better guy for the task. And this could be the start of a trend: Designer sounds by famous movie composers. Which automaker ends up with Randy Newman?

But what I still wrestle with is: Is this whole exercise fundamentally hokey or even retrograde, whether or not someone like Zimmer is at the helm? Does it not reveal how EVs, while they are presented as The Future, remain stuck in the paradigm established by internal combustion vehicles at the turn of the 20th century?

Or, more critically: In turning to a masterful manipulator of emotion to compose a soundtrack for a vehicle, isn’t BMW tacitly admitting that the entire driving experience is artificial? Lab-grown?

But, you’ll point out, as consciously designed human artifacts, cars are by definition artificial. This is inherent and undeniable. And here we have to look, for a moment, beyond just sound.

Historically, the total effect of a given car is directly tied to decisions and compromises made by its designers and engineers, who were working within a set of constraints ranging from budget to basic layout. By the end of the process, there’s typically been a direct path from how a car is conceived to how it is built to how it feels to drive—to experience. Midengine sports cars are distinctly desirable because of their handling, which is directly related to their format. 911s feel like 911s because the engine sits all the way at the back. And so on. This is so obvious, we barely stop to consider it.

I think part of the reason enthusiasts cherish older cars, beyond sheer nostalgia and despite their many faults, is because in the absence of modern refinement or electronic driving aids, automotive cause and effect map more or less directly. For decades, BMWs drove a certain way because they had engines in the front and driven wheels in the back, and much of the brand’s enduring performance-luxury appeal was built upon just how well it executed that particular dynamic.

The jump to EVs will turn that on its head, though in truth, BMW—and every other automaker, really—has been moving away from that original, cause-and-effect purity for a good long while now. The unique challenge of the electric vehicle is that, on the one hand, it offers automakers an almost totally blank slate for reimagining how a car looks, feels and sounds (or doesn’t sound). You can divorce your new product from longstanding perceptions and brand associations. It’s an almost unprecedented opportunity to rethink what a car is supposed to be.

Yet at the same time, consumer expectations for what an automobile should offer have been deeply ingrained over the past century-plus. For all of the praise Tesla gets for being revolutionary, its electric cars still look on the outside basically like everything else on the road. BMW’s Concept i4 is in the same boat; it’s a fastback-ish three-box sedan with a giant pseudo-grille up front.

Sound, too, is an important part of the driving experience, and the way in which automakers grapple with automotive soundtracks as they build cars without engines is emblematic of their broader struggle with EV conception and design. There’s nothing else on Earth that sounds like a naturally aspirated flat-plane crank V8—or, maybe more relevant here, a German straight-six. But even the most mediocre four-banger with a ratty exhaust serves as an important point of sensory connection between driver and car, an instant auditory stand-in for a glance at the tachometer or even speedometer.

As is often the case with quiet, well-insulated modern vehicles, even internal combustion ones, automakers are then left with the problem of adding back in that which they worked so hard to take away. Eliminate the engine entirely, and the silence becomes even more deafening. Automakers that pipe sound into the cabin, whether via resonators or speakers, claim they are enhancing what the powertrain already produces; whether you buy this or not, EVs are afforded no such conceit. Simply playing a prerecorded gasoline engine soundtrack is one option, but that feels like a one-dimensional party trick the novelty of which will soon be exhausted (no pun intended).

Enter Hans Zimmer, who worked with BMW sound designer Renzo Vitale on this project. The result can be heard here:

It kinda reminds me of the THX “deep note.” Is that good? I honestly don’t know.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Zimmer discusses some of the challenges of fabricating a new sound for a new sort of vehicle—both for the sake of pedestrians outside the car (EVs are required to broadcast sound below a certain speed) and of those in the cabin. You can read the interview with the composer here (note that you may have to register to access the article). It includes a longer, uncut version of the Concept i4’s sound. One quote from the interview really stands out:

“I’m still trying to get closer to the truth,” Mr. Zimmer said. “How am I going to connect the humans to the machine? How am I going to give you the freedom in this world I create to be an individual and tell your own story?”

Zimmer’s understanding of his role here, that he was brought on to this project to help connect driver and machine through sound, seems encouraging. But at a fundamental level I just don’t think cars work like that. It’s one thing to engineer a sound that triggers a given emotion; it’s another thing for that sound to be generated by the machine itself.

I can’t articulate this distinction in a way that’s totally impervious to critique or dissection, but hop into a vintage car or truck, twist the key and start it up, and then tell me honestly that you don’t understand the difference at a gut level.

What remains to be seen is whether the connection forged by an engineered soundtrack will be truly meaningful. I remain skeptical, but to Zimmer and all of those who will attempt a similar feat: Good luck.

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