What is the notification sound for?

A notification sound is an audio cue played by a device such as a smartphone, computer, or smartwatch to alert the user about a new notification or message. Notification sounds first emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s on desktop computers and pagers, acting as audio flags to grab the user’s attention (https://www.wired.com/story/history-of-notifications/). With the rise of mobile devices like smartphones, notification sounds have become a standard feature that users rely on to stay updated on incoming calls, texts, app alerts, calendar events, and more.

The main purpose of notification sounds is to notify. By producing a distinct sound, apps and devices can alert users about new information and prompt them to engage with the notification. This allows users to stay informed without having to constantly check their device screens. Notification sounds help cut through digital distraction and “noise” by signaling important or relevant updates. They provide an audio cue that stands out from media sounds like music or video audio tracks.

Today, notification sounds are highly customizable, allowing users to assign distinct sounds for different apps, contacts, and event types. Users can also control notification sound volume and vibration settings. This customization enables users to optimize notifications for their preferences and surroundings. Overall, notification sounds play a key role in modern digital communication and information consumption. Though originally simple beeps and buzzes, they have evolved into diverse audio options that users rely on to manage incoming information.

Types of Notification Sounds

There are several common types of notification sounds used on smartphones and other devices:

Ringtones – These are the sounds used to notify an incoming call. Ringtones can be customized with default options, purchased ringtones, or user-uploaded audio files.

Alert tones – These brief tones are used to notify events like new text messages, email, app notifications, etc. Alert tones are usually short beeps, chimes, or other brief sounds.

Alarm tones – Alarms use longer audio files to wake up users at a set time. Many default alarm tones feature melodic tones or music.

Email/app notification sounds – Each app and account usually has its own configurable notification sound for new messages or updates. These are often chimes and beeps.

Calendar/reminder tones – Calendars and reminders have notification sounds to alert upcoming events and reminders. These may use chimes, beeps, or brief melodic segments.

Functions of Notification Sounds

Notification sounds serve many important functions on our devices. Some of the key functions include:

Alerting the user to incoming calls or texts – When a call or text message comes in, the notification sound alerts the user so they don’t miss the notification. This allows users to promptly respond to important communications (SonicMinds).

Notifying the user of app alerts – Apps like email, social media, news, and more use sounds to notify users about new messages, posts, breaking news, and other app activity. This keeps users updated on the latest app notifications (Observer).

Reminding users of calendar events – Notification sounds can remind users of upcoming calendar events and appointments. This prevents users from forgetting important meetings or events.

Waking users up – Many alarm clocks and sleep tracking apps use sounds and ringtones to wake users up at a set time. This allows users to start their day on time.

Indicating completion of a task or process – Sounds are used to indicate when a process has finished, like a file download or software update. The sound notifies the user of the completed task.


Android and iOS devices come with a set of default notification sounds like chimes, rings, and alerts that users can choose from. However, both operating systems allow for further customization of sounds.

Users can select custom audio files like MP3s to use for notification alerts instead of the default options. This allows for a more personalized notification experience. There are websites like Zedge that offer packs of custom notification sounds to download.

Many apps also give options for custom notification sounds. For example, users can choose unique alert tones for messaging apps like WhatsApp so they can identify the app without even looking at their phone. This ability to customize notification sounds on an app-specific basis allows users to create a unique sound profile for their device.

Volume and Vibration Settings

Notification sounds allow granular control over volume, vibration, and muting options. Users can set overall volume levels or choose vibrate only to avoid disrupting others with sound. There are also options to mute notifications temporarily or indefinitely.

On Android, users can adjust notification volume separately from ringtone and media volumes in the device’s settings. There is a slider to control notification volume from silent to maximum level (Notification sound – Settings). Toggling the vibrate option makes the phone vibrate for notifications even when the volume is muted.

iOS also provides settings to change notification volume levels or select vibrate instead of sound. Users can swipe left on a notification and choose between sound, vibrate, or mute for that specific app (How to Change Notification Sound on Android). There are do not disturb options to silence notifications as needed.

Allowing flexibility with volume, vibration, and muting gives users control over when and how notifications disrupt their activities. Customizable audio and haptic feedback improves accessibility and situations where a noisy notification may be inappropriate.

Accessibility Features

Notification sounds play an important role for users with visual or hearing impairments. Mobile platforms like iOS and Android provide accessibility options to ensure notifications can be properly received.

For visually impaired users, options may include custom vibration patterns or flashing light alerts that provide notifications without relying on visual display cues. Apple’s iOS offers features like LED Flash for Alerts that causes the camera flash to blink when alerts come in (Apple Support). Android also provides similar accessibility services to enable alternative notifications.

For those with hearing difficulties, notifications sounds can be customized with options like mono audio, left/right stereo balance, or background noise reduction. Platforms like iOS allow users to set the volume, vibration intensity, and frequency of vibration for optimal awareness of alerts (Apple Accessibility Support). Android also enables notification vibration and visual cue adjustments.

Overall, the major mobile platforms provide strong accessibility features so that notification alerts can be properly configured for users’ unique needs.

Psychology and Behavior

Notification sounds can have a significant psychological impact due to conditioning. Over time, we learn to associate certain notification sounds with specific apps or events. This triggers an automatic emotional and behavioral response.

For example, the default iPhone text message sound is associated with incoming communication and can evoke excitement or anxiety depending on the context. The familiar ring of a Slack or email notification may evoke stress and disrupt focus. According to one analysis, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain focus after an interruption. [1]

The emotional impact also depends on the type of sound. A gentle chime is less jarring than a loud, abrupt sound. Softer, harmonic sounds tend to be calming while dissonant, clashing sounds increase tension. This is why many meditation apps use gentle chimes to signify the start and end of a session.

Overall, notification sounds can cue emotional and behavioral responses through conditioning. Thoughtful sound design considers the context in which sounds are heard and aims to minimize unnecessary distraction. With awareness, we can also work to modify conditioned responses to certain notification sounds when they are unproductive.

Design Considerations

When designing notification sounds, there are several key factors to consider for an optimal user experience:

Distinctiveness: The sound should be unique and distinguishable from other alerts to avoid confusion. Using distinct melodies, sound effects, or brand identifiers can make a notification sound more recognizable (Futurice, 2017).

Length: Notification sounds should be short, usually less than 3 seconds. Extending beyond 4-5 seconds risks annoyance and ignoring alerts (Infinity Mesh, n.d.).

Pleasantness: While distinct, notification sounds should aim for a pleasant or neutral sentiment to avoid aggravating users. Harsh, jarring sounds often get disabled or ignored (Futurice, 2017).

Brand Matching: Audio cues like brand slogans or sonic logos can reinforce brand identity. But branding should complement, not overwhelm, the functional purpose of immediacy and recognition (SADA Tech, 2023).

Future Directions

As technology continues to evolve, so too will notification sounds. Here are some key trends happening in this space:

Integration with smart devices and AI – Notification sounds are becoming integrated with smart home devices and AI assistants like Alexa and Siri. This allows for more contextual sounds based on who is contacting you, your schedule, location and more. AI can even suggest less intrusive sounds at certain times.

More personalized and contextual sounds – Sounds are becoming more personalized and tailored to specific users, situations and preferences. For example, the sound for a message from your spouse may be different than one from your boss. Contextual factors like time of day, current activity and location can also adjust sounds.

Less intrusive approaches – With the proliferation of notifications, new approaches are emerging to make them less disruptive. This includes gently fading sounds in and out, using vibrations instead of sounds in certain contexts, and allowing users to snooze or defer notifications for a period of time.


In summary, notification sounds serve important functions like alerting users to new messages and events. They come in many forms like ringtones, alarm sounds, messaging tones, and system alerts. Users can customize notification sounds to their preferences, which allows personalization and accessibility for those with vision or hearing impairments.

Features like volume controls, vibrate modes, and assigning unique sounds to contacts help users manage notifications. The psychology of sounds also influences behavior and productivity. Notification design involves carefully balancing utility and discretion.

Looking ahead, we can expect more advanced customization and contextual intelligence in notification systems. The ideal is to provide sounds that are pleasant yet effective at grabbing attention when desired. Accessibility will remain a key consideration as these systems continue evolving.

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