Chances are you can hear it in your head now.
There is no question that ‘ba da ba ba ba’—five notes and syllables—has become one of the most recognizable sonic logos of all time. And it’s no accident that this ditty has so successfully wormed its way into our collective consciousness.
Frequent use is crucial for any effective sonic logo, and McDonald’s has consistently used this one since 2003...again, and again and again.
But ubiquity isn’t the only reason the McDonald’s sonic logo works. There are a few musical qualities that make 'Ba da ba ba ba' so darn effective.
1. A Universal Melody
The pentatonic scale is the only one that exists in almost every musical culture around the world. As Bobby McFerrin has delightfully demonstrated, it seems to be hard-wired into our brains. McDonald’s taps into this shared musical language by using just five notes of it—creating an easy-to-sing, inherently appealing melody.
Interestingly, the original version of the song 'I’m Lovin It,' sung by Justin Timberlake, featured a different melody consisting of the first five notes of the minor scale. While that was great for the early-2000s pop/R&B style of the original track, it isn’t nearly as universally pleasing as the pentatonic scale.
Syncopation is the placement of musical notes or hits on off-beats. It’s what makes you want to move and groove to music. McDonald’s pushes all but the first of its notes to the off-beat, making the melody feel peppy and playful, even when it is sung acapella or played by a single instrument.
3. Baby Syllables
I’m no speech therapist, but you don’t need to have teeth to pronounce “ba” and “da.” Saying 'ba da ba ba ba' is quite literally so easy, a baby can do it. That makes it all the more likely to proliferate. It is a fun, instantly familiar syllable spread that almost demands to be repeated by listeners.
So McDonald’s has a nice melody, a bouncy rhythm and familiar syllables.
There are, however, a ton of variations on the McDonald’s sonic logo that don’t use all three elements listed above: instrumental versions, heartfelt versions and at least one percussion-only version that doesn’t use the melody or the syllables at all.
The fact that McDonald’s has so many variations of its sonic logo speaks to the strength of each individual element. It doesn’t need to use all three to be recognized. The most recent version, for example, is just the actor Brian Cox mumble-singing 'ba da ba ba ba' in neither the right rhythm nor the right melody. But still, it works!
Sonic branding, like music and culture at large, progresses. What sounded unique in 2003 will sound passé in 2021.
Most importantly, you need a sound that sounds like you, not one that sounds like a McNugget.
Lucas Murray is a music producer at Made Music Studio.