12 December 2019

RIP ringtones: the death of the personalised polyphonic

Expert comment
11 55 66 5… 44 33 22 1. Nope… it’s not Morse code or the phone number to reclaim mis-sold PPI insurance.

Those of us who lived through the golden age of mobile technology in the Nineties and Noughties will undoubtedly recognise that fun little sequence as the composition for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on your Nokia’s ringtone composer.

And although the thought of having a nursery rhyme blare out from your phone today would make most of us cringe, the novelty had a longer run than you might think. So when did personalised ringtones transition from smash hit to social suicide — and at what point did we all mutually decide to switch to silent?


The early days

Back when mobiles and cellphones were a new thing, ringtone options were limited to a select number of MIDI tracks, like the typical ‘ring ring’… a few variations of beeps and boops, and the ever-famous Nokia tune (which is so iconic, it has its own Wikipedia page). This was the case up until the late 90s when hits like Auld Lang Syne, Brave Scotland, Charleston and Mexican Hat Dance made their way onto the scene.

Choosing your favourite was as important as choosing what trainers to wear — and the parent/child divide soon became apparent, with ringtones like William Tell becoming synonymous with the classic dad.


Into the new millennium

The first mass-market phone to have a ringtone composer built-in was the Nokia 3210; notably, this model did not have a vibrate function at launch.

There were endless hours of fun to be had with the ringtone composer back then, which coincided nicely with the pre-MySpace era of the internet — meaning that those fortunate enough to have a dial-up connection at home could source and download codes for all their favourite songs. Hit an off-key, or get the tempo wrong, and you’d look like a real amateur — but done well, and you could let the world know which side of the Oasis/Blur divide you stood on, or that you were more Faithless than Britney Spears.


2002 saw Nokia release the iconic 3510

And with it, polyphonic ringtones made their first appearance – with the classic Nokia ringtone getting a polyphonic makeover.

This was a huge step up in comparison to their monophonic predecessor — and marketers worldwide quickly saw that there was money to be made. With custom tracks selling for as much as $5-a-piece in the US, the industry grew to an estimated $4 billion by just 2004, with names like Zingy taking the lead at around 2.5 million sales every month.

Shortly after that, the powers-that-be cracked the code to enable phones to play MP3 tracks, and there was no going back. Classrooms, offices, bus rides and bedrooms were abuzz with a medley of musical tastes and genres, and models like the Sony Walkman W810i set the benchmark for speaker quality.

Everyone had access to a pocket-sized boombox, and with the new-found DJ privileges came with a level of responsibility that not everyone obliged to… a responsibility to not bombard public spaces with tracks like ‘Crazy Frog’ and ‘Funny Baby Chick.’


The music industry gets involved

The music industry jumped aboard the bandwagon too, and soared through the rocky years of illegal downloading by selling Truetone ringtones directly to their fans and followers — seeing the likes of 50 Cent, Nelly, Afroman and Rihanna top the Billboard Ringtone Chart List up until around 2010.

The money was rolling in, and musical history was being written — so what happened?

The iPhone, that’s what. By making music on your phone readily available through iTunes, ringtone sales plummeted, and it wasn’t long before big-hitters like Zingy lost momentum and shut their doors for good. Not only that, but the classic iPhone ringtone became a status symbol in its own right — and people slowly became more inclined to share their allegiance to their preferred brand of phone than their favourite artist.

Like all fads and novelties, the iPhone vs Android ringtone battle soon blew over — and at one point in time, a single phone going off meant that everyone in the room simultaneously checked who was calling them (only to be reminded that they had less friends than they’d at-first thought).

Maybe it was convenience… or maybe the embarrassment of interrupting a conversation only to answer the phone to your mum grew too much… but somewhere in the midst of all the technological advancements, people slowly started to opt for vibration mode over loud.



Our usage of the telephone – privately, at least – has evolved; someone calling you unannounced can be considered rude, and only a select few get a free pass. So the sound of ringing? It was a defining era in the world of audio branding, and a sterling example of how music can embody not just an individual, business or a brand, but a place in time.

Now, we just need to master how to stop missing calls…


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