This topic has been on my mind for some time now, I just haven’t had the time to write about it. The way phones ring has changed significantly in the last ten to twenty years. I think everyone who will read this remembers when the only types of ringtones you heard were variations of *ring-ring*. Well, now times have changed, and not without problems.

Back in the dark ages, before mobile phones started to be more common (we’re talking yearly 90s and earlier here), most locations had one – or at most a few – phones that you could hear ringing. In those situations a few variations of the traditional ring were good enough to let people distinguish whose phone was ringing.

Now jump into the mid-nineties (at least in Finland), where mobile phones are becoming more and more popular, even college and university students have them and not just the business types. You have a group of people, all with their phones in their pockets, and one starts ringing. How do you know its yours? Enter ringtones. The earliest phones I remember had something like ten or so different tones. Then you started to get more advanced models that allowed you to order new ringtones from service providers. Even more personalization and tools to distinguish your phones from the others. Now these tones were still beeps of a few different pitches, but many songs and themes were recognizable.

Then finally, a couple of years ago, phones with polyphonic ringones started to appear. These ringtones are closer to real music, in fact they are MIDI files with limited amounts of simultaneous instruments. But the ringtones are starting to sound real good by now. At the same time, phones with support for ringtones directly from MP3s and such began to arrive, let alone those which allow you to record a clip and use it as a ringtone (your own dogs barking, anyone?).

OK, so now you have unlimited options with which to customize what your phone sounds like when it rings, right? All is well and so on? Alas, that isn’t the case. I know, I’ve been trying to live with it. When ringtones were eletronic beeps, there wasn’t much in the ambient noise that could be mixed up them. Now, with ringtones that sound like actual music, they begin to blend in with the ambient noise. I’ve missed many a call because forwarded calls from my office phone play For the Love of God by Steve Vai. It just blends in too well with the music coming from the car stereo. And no mother, the music is not too loud. My primary ringtone for colleagues is Nemo, by Nightwish. Guess how many times I’ve been listening to it as an MP3 on my headphones and it starts playing in my pocket as well?

The point is, while customizable ringtones are generally a good thing, the modern trend towards real music as a ringtone way not be as successful as the varying eletronic beeps. Simply because there is so much music in the ambient noise. Contrast is good on screens, it is also good when trying to distinguish sounds from each other. Anyone else notice the same problems?