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Pros and Cons of Adding Sound to Web Pages

Using Sound May Mean Annoying Your Audience - But Sound Can Be Useful

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Sound on web pages is a very contentious subject. Many people hate sound of any kind on web pages, and even people who don’t mind sound tend to hate automatic background music—especially if there are no controls to turn it off. So, before you add sound to your web pages, you should be very sure that it serves a purpose and ads value.

When to Use Sound

Before you dismiss sound on web pages out of hand, keep in mind that there are some legitimate uses for sound:

  • Musician and artists pages
    Any website for a musician or video artist will need sound to showcase their work. These sites do best with links to the music and videos rather than having them auto play.
  • Game Websites
    Most online games incorporate sound in some fashion. Sound provides interactivity and makes games more fun. But you should have a home page that doesn’t have sound, and perhaps a warning if the sounds are loud or start automatically without any muting available.
  • Forms, especially Ajax forms
    Sound can enhance Ajax and web 2.0 pages by letting customers know that something has happened. For example, buttons can make a click sound when they are pressed and subtle timer sounds can help let the customer know that the website is processing something. Be careful not to overdo this—keep it simple and use the sounds to enhance rather than overwhelm.
  • Web pages aimed at children
    Websites designed for children might use sound to make the site more stimulating and engaging for an audience that has a shorter attention span. Sounds and background music can make pages more engaging and interesting. Remember that children have parents, and they may be annoyed by sound that cannot be turned off, or is too loud, even if the kids love it.

When Not to Use Sound

You should always be careful when you use sound on web pages. After intrusive advertising, sound that turns on automatically and cannot be turned off is one of the most annoying aspects of poorly designed web pages.

Know your audience. If you don’t have a pressing need to use sound, then you probably shouldn’t. And remember that even though you might feel that your spa website needs the same background music that they would get when they come in for a facial, the reality is that your customers are probably at work when they visit your site. And music or sound on sites is an immediate indication that they are not looking up the latest projections on GDP in Patagonia. Most people at work immediately hit the back button when they come to a site with auto-play background music.

The Elements to Add Sound are Invalid HTML 4.01

One of the biggest drawbacks to adding sound to your web pages is that the two tags that work on the widest variety of web browsers, EMBED and BGSOUND, are both invalid HTML. Neither are part of the HTML 4.01 or XHTML 1.0 or 1.1 specification. The EMBED element has been added to HTML5, but if you’re going to include sound in an HTML5 site, you should use the AUDIO element instead.

The only way to add sound in a valid way in HTML 4.01 is with the OBJECT element, and that only works reliably in Safari and Chrome.

Tips for Using Sound

  • Always use the attribute controls="true". This gives the control of the sound back to your customers. If they want to hear the sound, they can, and if they don’t, they can turn it off.
  • Don’t use autoplay="true" or autostart="true". As I said above, sound starting when the page loads is a great way to get people to leave your site. They almost never stay long enough to “get into the mood” of your site. And even if they don’t mind the music, they may have music of their own playing, which your background music will conflict with.
  • Link to sound files. Let your readers decide if they want to listen to the music by clicking on the link. Just let them know that they’re going to a sound file.
  • Don’t use copyrighted songs without permission. ASCAP, BMI, and the RIAA are very vigilant about pursuing copyright violations. Don’t assume that because you found the song on the web, even if it’s converted into a midi or other electronic format, that it’s free for use.

Music is a very personal choice. What you like may not be to your audience’s preference. Don’t risk alienating readers with sound on your site. Use sound intelligently.

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