What is the oldest Ringtone?

Ringtones have a long and interesting history, dating back to the early days of the telephone. At their essence, ringtones are short audio files that play on a mobile phone when an incoming call or message arrives. They allow users to customize and personalize their phones, choosing fun sounds and melodies instead of the default ringing. Over the decades, ringtones have evolved from simple beeps and buzzers to a broad palette of digital audio. In the 1980s and 90s, phones began to have electronic ringtones built in. Eventually downloadable ringtones took off, sparking a booming industry. Today, ringtones remain a popular way for people to add flair and style to their devices.

The First Ringtones

The first commercial mobile phone ringtones emerged in the early 1990s with simple monophonic ringtones produced by early mobile phones. According to Quora, the earliest known ringtone was composed in 1992 by the Finnish musician Anu Komsi and was simply called Nokia tune. This iconic 10-note ringtone became synonymous with Nokia mobile phones for many years. Other early monophonic ringtones were similarly short, catchy tunes or beeps designed specifically for mobile phones.

These early ringtones were very basic electronically-generated melodies with no harmony or additional instrumentation. Phone manufacturers worked with musicians and composers to create distinct ringtones that would help differentiate their brand. The ringtones were stored on read-only memory chips inside the phones and customers could not customize or change them. While limited in musicality, these simple monophonic ringtones heralded a new era of personalization and were the first customized mobile phone sounds.

Polyphonic Ringtones Emerge

In the late 1990s, polyphonic ringtones first emerged as a major advancement from the monophonic ringtones that had dominated mobile phones up until then. Polyphonic ringtones used multiple tones and musical notes to create more complex melodies and sounds. This allowed ringtones to incorporate more elaborate musical phrases and songs.

One of the first popular uses of polyphonic ringtones was on Nokia mobile phones. In 1997, Nokia introduced the Nokia 5110, which had the capability to play 4 note polyphonic ringtones. Soon after in 1999, the Nokia 7110 was released, which could play up to 24 note polyphonic ringtones. This sparked a wave of interest in polyphonic ringtones, especially from Nokia users.

By the early 2000s, polyphonic ringtones had become a signature feature of Nokia phones. As they increased in complexity and musicality, polyphonic ringtones became extremely popular for personalizing phones and expressing personality. The classic Nokia ringtone in particular was well-recognized around the world. Nokia capitalized on this popularity by preloading their phones with polyphonic versions of popular songs and allowing users to customize and assign ringtones. At their peak, polyphonic ringtones were a major selling point of Nokia’s market-leading mobile phones.

The Rise of MP3 Ringtones

In the late 1990s, a major shift occurred with the introduction of the MP3 audio format and the ability to convert MP3 files into ringtones. The MP3 format allowed users to turn any audio clip into a ringtone, opening up endless possibilities for customization and personalization.

Whereas previous ringtones were limited to preset options controlled by wireless carriers, MP3 ringtones allowed users to set a ringtone to their favorite song, soundbite from a TV show or movie, or any other audio file. Suddenly ringtones became a form of personal expression. Friends could identify each other by their distinctive ringtones.

The first MP3 capable phones with polyphonic ringtones emerged around 1998. By the early 2000s, MP3 had become the dominant format for ringtones. Websites and services emerged that allowed easy downloading and conversion of MP3s into ringtones for specific phone models. Downloading ringtones became a booming business, with global revenues of over $4 billion dollars in 2005 (The Evolution of MP3 Ringtones).

Smartphones and Custom Ringtones

The emergence of smartphones in the late 2000s and early 2010s opened up new possibilities for customizing ringtones. With smartphones like the iPhone and Android devices, users could purchase ringtones from app stores like iTunes and upload their own audio files as custom ringtones.

The iTunes Store became a popular source for iPhone ringtones. Apple opened up the iTunes Store to include ringtones in 2007. Users could browse a wide selection of ringtones in different genres and purchase them individually to set as their iPhone ringtone.1

On Android, apps like Zedge and MobiTones emerged that allowed easy downloading and customization of ringtones. Users could upload music files, trim audio clips, adjust formats, and convert songs into ringtones for their Android devices. This gave Android users a high level of personalization options for their ringtones.

The ability to purchase and create custom ringtones directly on one’s smartphone opened up new creative possibilities for personalization that went beyond the preloaded ringtone libraries on earlier mobile phones.

Preloaded vs. Downloaded Ringtones

In the early days of mobile phones, ringtones were limited to the default options preloaded on the device. These electronic-sounding ringtones like “Nokia Tune” became ubiquitous, often identifying someone’s phone brand and model by the ring alone. But as phones advanced, users gained the ability to install downloaded ringtones, sparking a massive market for customization.

According to one report, the global music downloads market, which includes ringtones, was valued at $1.25 billion in 2020 [1]. Downloaded ringtones accounted for a significant portion of revenue, with some estimates stating they made up 80% of telecom revenue from content services in the early 2000s [2]. Downloading ringtones to customize phones became immensely popular, far surpassing the limited default options.

As smartphones advanced, preloaded ringtones improved in quality and selection. But the ability to install customized ringtones still remained popular. Even with more advanced smartphone features, the global market for ringtone maker apps was still valued at $94 million in 2022 [3]. Downloading ringtones remains a way for users to personalize their devices and self-express.

Ringtone Charts and Popular Ringtones

Ringtones gained mainstream popularity in the early 2000s, and Billboard launched a weekly “Hot Ringtones” chart in 2004 to track the most popular ringtones being downloaded and purchased. Hip hop, pop, and rock songs frequently topped the ringtone charts during the peak ringtone era.

According to Billboard’s year-end charts, some of the best-selling ringtones of the 2000s included “Low” by Flo Rida, “Apologize” by Timbaland featuring OneRepublic, “Irreplaceable” by Beyonce, and “Lollipop” by Lil Wayne. Other top ringtone hits included songs by artists like 50 Cent, Black Eyed Peas, Snoop Dogg, and Britney Spears.

The Shop Boyz song “Party Like a Rockstar” was one of the most purchased ringtones in 2007, outselling all other ringtones that year with over 2.3 million downloads. Ringtones by Mims, Fergie, and Akon were also among the top sellers.

Ringtone Culture and Trends

In the early 2000s, ringtones became a pop culture phenomenon and form of self-expression. Teens and young adults would purchase ringtones of their favorite songs or TV show theme songs and assign them to friends in their address book as a way to identify callers. Having a hip, unique ringtone was important for cultivating your image and personality.

The ringtone craze led to the emergence of “ringbacks” as well – customized songs that callers would hear instead of the normal ringing noise when they phoned someone. Ringtone sales skyrocketed, becoming a multi-billion dollar business for record labels and artists. Charting ringtone sales even impacted Billboard charts.

However, with the advent of smartphones like the iPhone in the late 2000s, custom ringtones declined. Smartphones allowed users to easily assign any song in their music library as a ringtone. The need to purchase pre-made ringtones waned, as did the cultural significance of having a special ringtone. While nostalgia for vintage ringtones persists, they no longer define pop culture identity.

Ringtone Nostalgia

Many classic ringtones from the early 2000s have seen a resurgence in popularity, thanks to a wave of nostalgia. One of the most iconic is the Nokia Tune, which was first introduced on the Nokia 2110 in 1994. Its simple, catchy melody is instantly recognizable and reminds many people of receiving their first cell phone. According to a recent survey, over 80% of respondents associate the Nokia Tune with feelings of nostalgia. This ringtone remains popular today, with countless remixes and modern covers.

Beyond the Nokia Tune, many retro ringtones from brands like Motorola and LG are also making a comeback. Music from classic games, TV shows, and old-school hip-hop have found new life as ringtones. A vintage ringtone revival is underway, letting consumers relive these blasts from the past. While early mobile phones could only play monophonic ringtones, modern smartphones can provide high-quality audio for these digital mementos. As retro media continues trending, these nostalgic custom ringtones help users celebrate the past through technology.

The Future of Ringtones

The future of ringtones is expected to focus on customization and personalization. As more people carry smartphones capable of high-quality audio and accessing a wide selection of ringtones, there is more demand for unique ringtones that reflect a person’s personal style and preferences.

Emerging technology may enable even more customization options for ringtones. For example, new apps could allow users to convert any song snippet or audio clip into a personalized ringtone. AI and machine learning may also enable algorithms to analyze a person’s music taste and generate personalized ringtones tailored to them.

Ringtones may also become more interactive and adaptive in the future. They could change and evolve over time or react to external factors like location, weather, or calendar events. This would allow ringtones to stay fresh and continually match a user’s context and personality.

Overall, the demand for customizable, unique ringtones is driving innovation in this space. As technology enables more audio manipulation and personalization options, ringtones can become an ever more creative form of self-expression and identity on mobile devices.

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