Windows 95: How Brian Eno's music defined the sound of the internet age

For people who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s, it’s one of the most recognisable pieces of music in the world. It is so familiar, in fact, that it might seem more like wind than music, an ambient hum that has no obvious source and which is so hard to define that it might as well have come from another planet. Any guesses? That’s right; it’s the start-up theme to Microsoft’s Windows 95. The groundbreaking operating system is 25 today, so in celebration, we’ll be looking at how Brian Eno’s music helped to launch the pioneering software.

Even though you’ve probably listened to it about a gazillion times, I’m betting you’ve never really considered who created the Windows start-up theme, or for that matter, how they created it. Clocking in at 3.25 seconds, it hardly draws attention to itself. It’s not like Bill Gates wanted a brass fanfare, and this is all the composer could come up with — it was designed to seem almost invisible, to feel as though it was an organic part of a digital operating system. It’s ethereal; it’s otherworldly; it’s perfectly structured; it’s got Brian Eno written all over it.

When Windows 95 was still in embryo, Microsoft approached Eno to compose one of the most unusual pieces of music he’s ever written. The executives gave him an extensive list of adjectives that the composition would need to convey to users and left him to it.

He must have thought it would be a walk in the park. At that time, Eno had already delved deep into the world of generative music, developing ambient pieces created by running various tape loops at different intervals. They occasionally intersected, creating something “accidental” and beautiful. The problem was, most of these generative compositions lasted for around 20 minutes at a time. Microsoft needed something no longer than (wait for it) 3.25 seconds. Ouch.

But Eno has never been one to turn away from a challenge. In an interview in 1996, Eno discussed the unusual project brief, recalling how “the idea came up at the time when I was completely bereft of ideas. I’d been working on my own music for a while and was quite lost, actually. And I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, Here’s a specific problem — solve it.”

“The thing from the agency said, ‘We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,’ this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom, it said ‘and it must be 3.25 seconds long’,” Eno continued.

Eno had been growing increasingly disillusioned with his musical career at this time. Responding to the question of whether he would be releasing any of his own music, Eno said: “Yes, but I’m not getting very far. I suppose the thing I’m working on is this strange kind of music that nobody seems to like very much. But I don’t know whether it will come to anything or not. I’ve got a feeling that music might not be the most interesting place to be in the world of things. And this is rather undermining my commitment to doing it.”

The Microsoft project required Eno to entirely reimagine his creative process, forcing him to think not in terms of minutes but nano-seconds. It opened his eyes to the new musical possibilities heralded by the increasing ubiquity of computers, and he quickly became obsessed with the task Microsoft had put in front of him.

“I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It’s like making a tiny little jewel,” Eno said. “I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.”

After 83 failed attempts, Eno finally came up with something he was satisfied with. Although it may seem like a small thing, the sound design of computer systems is fundamental to how people interact with them. Because these systems (and the internet itself) are essentially intangible, the software needs to contain something the user feels familiar with, which feels organic – as though they could touch it. Eno’s composition succeeded in providing all of that.

Its melody is concise but doesn’t draw attention to itself. It is a simple arpeggio steeped in a pool of tactile ambient textures, and it adds a physicality to something which is, at its core, little more than binary code. That’s pretty impressive stuff.

You can take a listen to Brian Eno’s re-mix of the original Windows 95 theme below. It’s been slowed down by 2300%.