Thought Leadership

Clocks and rhythms

By Colin Walls

I think that living with a chiming clock is beginning to have an effect on my brain. I have been giving [even] more thought to how a clock’s chime might be more usefully designed. I wrote before about a scheme that would make the chime a little easier to internalize/remember. I now think that I have an approach that would work even better …

Broadly, the problem with a conventional clock chime is that the listener normally needs to interpret it on the fly – i.e. count the number of chimes – and this can be challenging. If the chime could be made memorable, the listener could “replay” it after hearing and, thus, interpret at their leisure. This is the crux of my proposals so far.

Remembering sounds is not so hard – we do it all the time. Having an accurate memory, from which data may be extracted is harder. It occurred to me that there is a context in which we do this all the time: music. Most of us can hum a tune when we have hear it a few times. It turns out that immediately memorable songs tend to be the most commercially successful [this is the Old Grey’s Whistle Test]. However, although the idea of a clock playing a different tune on each hour [only a few notes are needed] is attractive and would work well, it would introduce excess complexity into a mechanical clock.

Music has essentially two elements: notes and rhythms. Many – maybe most – people can hear and recall rhythms as easily as notes. I have been to numerous live music performances where the audience has been encouraged to participate by singling some words or clapping a particular rhythm – very little training is needed. We can put this to the test. We can encode rhythm sequences like this:
“.” means a short pause
“-” means a longer pause
“X” means a beat

Here are a couple of examples which may sound familiar:

X - X X . X . X - X X

X X - X X X - X X X X . X X

Try “performing” these for a friend – each one just once – and see whether they can accurately echo each one back to you.

I am sure that this functionality could be built into a clock.


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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at