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A ringtone or ring tone is the sound made by a telephone to indicate an incoming call or text message. Not literally a tone, the term is most often used today to refer to customizable sounds used on mobile phones.


A phone “rings” when its network indicates an incoming call and the phone thus alerts the user. For landline telephones, the call signal can be an electric current generated by the switch to which the telephone is connected. For mobile phones, the network sends the phone a message indicating an incoming call.

A telephone “ring” is the sound generated when there is an incoming telephone call. The term originated from the fact that early telephones had a ringing mechanism consisting of a bell and an electromagnetically-driven hammer, producing a ringing sound. The aforementioned electrical signal powered the electromagnet which would rapidly move and release the hammer, striking the bell. This "magneto" bell system is still in widespread use. The ringing signal sent to a customer's telephone is AC at 90 volts and 20 hertz in North America. In Europe it is around 60-90 volts AC at a frequency of 25 hertz

While the sound produced is still called a “ring”, more-recently manufactured telephones electronically produce a warbling, chirping, or other sound. Variation of the ring signal can be used to indicate characteristics of incoming calls (for example, rings with a shorter interval between them might be used to signal a call from a given number).

A ringing signal is an electric telephony signal that causes a telephone to alert the user to an incoming call. On a POTS telephone system, this is created by sending an alternating current signal of about 100 volts [90 volts and 20Hz in the USA] into the line. Today this signal may be transmitted digitally for much of the journey, provided as an alternating current only because a majority of landlines are not digital end-to-end. In old phones, this voltage was used to trigger a high-impedance electromagnet to ring a bell on the phone.

Fixed phones of the late 20th century and later detect this AC voltage and trigger a warbling tone electronically. Mobile phones are fully digital, hence are signalled to ring as part of the protocol they use to communicate with the cell base stations.

In fixed POTS phones, ringing is said to be "tripped" when the impedance of the line reduces to about 600 ohms when the telephone handset is lifted off the switch-hook. This signals that the telephone call has been answered, and the telephone exchange immediately removes the ringing signal from the line and connects the call. This is the source of the name of the problem called "ring-trip" or "pre-trip", which occurs when the ringing signal on the line encounters excessively low resistance between the conductors, which trips the ring before the subscriber's actual telephone has a chance to ring (for more than a very short time); this is common with wet weather and improperly installed lines.

Early research showed that people would wait until the phone stopped ringing before picking it up. Breaks were introduced into the signal to avoid this problem, resulting in the common ring-pause-ring cadence pattern used today. In early party line systems this pattern was a Morse code letter indicating who should pick up the phone, but today, with individual lines, the only surviving patterns are a single ring and double-ring, originally Morse code letters T and M respectively.

The ringing pattern is known as ring cadence. This only applies to POTS fixed phones, where the high voltage ring signal is switched on and off to create the ringing pattern. In North America, the standard ring cadence is "2-4", or two seconds of ringing followed by four seconds of silence. In Australia and the UK, the standard ring cadence is 400 ms on, 200 ms off, 400 ms on, 2000 ms off. These patterns may vary from region to region, and other patterns are used in different countries around the world.

A service akin to party line ringing is making a comeback in some small office and home office situations allowing facsimile machines and telephones to share the same line but have different telephone numbers; this CLASS feature is usually called distinctive ringing generically, though carriers assign it trademarked names such as "Smart Ring", "Duet", "Multiple Number" and "Ringmaster." This feature is also used for a second phone number assigned to the same physical line for roommates or teenagers, in which case it is sometimes marketed under the name "teen line".

Caller ID signals are sent during the silent interval between the first and second bursts of the ringing signals.

The interrupted ring signal was designed to attract attention and studies showed that an intermittent two tone ring was the easiest to hear. This had nothing to do with the coded ringing that was used on party lines.


AT&T offered seven different gong combinations for the "C" type ringer found in the model 500 and 2500 landline telephone sets. These gongs provided "distinctive tones" for hearing-impaired customers and to make it possible to tell which phone was ringing when several phones were placed closely together. A "Bell Chime" was also offered, which could be set to chime like a doorbell or to ring like an ordinary phone.

Following a 1975 FCC ruling which permitted third-party devices to be connected to phone lines, manufacturers began to produce accessory telephone ringers which rang with electronic tones or melodies rather than mechanically. People also made their own ringers which used the chip from a musical greeting card to play a melody on the arrival of a call. One such ringer, described in a 1989 book, even features a toy dog which barks and wags its tail when a call arrives. Eventually, electronic telephone ringers became the norm. Some of these ringers produced a single tone, but others produced a sequence of two or three tones or a musical melody.

The first commercial mobile phone with customizable ring tones was the Japanesemarker NTT DoCoMo Digital Mova N103 Hyper by NEC, released in May 1996. It had a few preset songs in MIDI format. In September 1996, IDO, the current au, sold Digital Minimo D319 by Denso. It was the first mobile phone where a user could input an original melody, rather than the preset songs. These phones proved to be popular in Japan: a book published in 1998 providing details about how to customize phones to play snippets of popular songs sold more than 3.5 million copies.

The first downloadable mobile ring tone service was created and delivered in Finland in autumn 1998 when Radiolinja (a Finnish mobile operator now known as Elisa) started their service called Harmonium, invented by Vesa-Matti Pananen., the Harmonium contained both tools for individuals to create monophonic ring tones and a mechanism to deliver them over-the-air (OTA) via SMS to a mobile handset. On November 1998, Digitalphone Groupe (SoftBank Mobile) started a similar service in Japan.

Ringtone makers

A ring tone maker allows a user to take a song from their personal music collection, select whatever section they like and send the file to their mobile phone. Files can be sent to the mobile phone by direct connection (e.g., USB cable), Bluetooth, text messaging, or e-mail.

The earliest ringtone maker was Harmonium, developed by Vesa-Matti Paananen, a Finnish computer programmer, and released in 1997 for use with Nokia smart messaging.

Some providers allow users to create their own music tones, either with a "melody composer" or a sample/loop arranger (such as the MusicDJ in many Sony Ericsson phones). These often use encoding formats only available to one particular phone model or brand. Other formats, such as MIDI or MP3, are often supported; they must be downloaded to the phone before they can be used as a normal ring tone.

In 2005 "SmashTheTones" (now "Mobile17"), became the first third-party solution to allow ring tone creation online without requiring downloadable software or a digital audio editor. Later, Apple’s iPhone allowed users to create a ringtone from any song purchased for the phone’s iTunes library but with some difficulties, including a 40-second limit, and the fact the file has to be an AAC format and whose name ended with the extension .m4r.

There are a variety of websites that let users make ring tones from digital music or other sound files; they upload directly to their mobile phone with no limit on the number of songs uploaded. They feature music editors that lets the user pick the part of the song they wish to set as a ring tone. Such services automatically detect the phone settings to ensure the best file type and format.

Ringtone business

The fact that consumers are willing to pay up to $3 for ringtones have made "mobile music" a particularly profitable part of the music industry. Estimates vary: the Manhattan-based marketing and consulting firm Consect estimated ringtones generated $4 billion in worldwide sales in 2004. According to Fortune magazine, ring tones generated more than $2 billion in worldwide sales during 2005. In 2009, the research firm SNL Kagan estimated that sales of ringtones in the United States peaked at $714 million in 2007. SNL Kagan estimated U.S. sales in 2008 declined to $541 million, due in part to consumers having learned how to create their own ringtones.

Billing controversies

The ringtone business has prompted at least two lawsuits about the industry's business practices. In April 2005, the law firm of Callahan, McCune and Willis filed a class action lawsuit against Jamster! on behalf of a San Diegomarker father and his ten-year-old daughter. The lawsuit alleges that Jamster! scammed cellular telephone customers through the use of fraudulent and deceptive advertisements. The plaintiffs argue that the ads in question offered one free ring tone to cell phone customers who responded to the ad via text message, but failed to inform users that they would be subscribed to a monthly service. the lawsuit is pending.

On July 20, 2005, the Utility Consumers' Action Network, a non-profit California consumer advocacy organization, filed a complaint with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) against Cingular Wireless for the unauthorized billing of non-communications related charges, such as ring tones. UCAN claimed that Cingular billed its customers for Jamster! and other similar ring tone services without providing customers with the notice, opt-in, and proof of authorization requirements necessary for such charges. UCAN further charged Cingular with violating numerous CPUC requirements by consistently telling customers with questions about non-communications service charges on their wireless phone bill that Cingular has no responsibility and cannot assist customers with their inquiries.Federal court rules Telephone Consumer Protection Act does not apply to commercial SMS text messages sent to cellular phones

In June, 2007, the ruling came in in Satterfield v. Simon & Schuster, No. C 06-2893 CW, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46325 (N.D. Cal. June 26, 2007), a case involving the transmission of an SMS text message promoting a popular author's "mobile club" to a cellular phone used by a seven-year-old child. The defendants, the publishing company that contracted for the transmission of the promotional messages and the service provider that actually sent the messages, argued that the subscriber, the child's mother, had consented to the transmission of promotional messages when, in order to receive a free ringtone, she checked the box in an online form labeled "Yes! I would like to receive promotions from affiliates and brands…."

In Satterfield v. Simon & Schuster, Judge Claudia Wilken ruled contrary to Joffe that SMS text messages are not covered by the TCPA, first, because the manner in which the SMS messages were sent by the marketer does not fit the statutory definition of an "automatic telephone dialing system," and second, because the plaintiff had agreed to receive promotional messages under a broadly worded consent provision, executed in connection with the download of a free ringtone. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and reinstated the potentially 90 million dollar lawsuit against publishing giant Simon & Schuster

Types of ring tones

A monophonic ring tone is simply a series of musical notes, one note at a time.

A polyphonic ring tone can consist of several notes at a time. The first polyphonic ring tones used sequenced recording methods such as MIDI. Such recordings specify what synthetic instrument should play a note at a given time, and the actual instrument sound is dependent upon the playback device. Later, synthesized instruments could be included along with the composition data, which allowed for more varied sounds beyond the built-in sound bank of each phone.

A truetone (also known as "realtone", "mastertone", "superphonic ringtone" or "audio recording") is simply an audio recording, typically in a common format such as MP3 or AAC. Truetones, which are often excerpts from songs, have become popular as ring tones. The first truetone service was started by au on December 2002. "My Gift to You" by Chemistry was the first song to be distributed as a truetone.

Sing tone
A "sing tone" is a ring tone created in karaoke style, combining a user’s recorded voice (adjusted to be both in time and in tune) with a backing track.

Ring tone encoding formats

  • AAC: Some phones like the Sony Ericsson W810i support ring tones in ".m4a" AAC format. The iPhone supports ring tones in ".m4r" AAC format. The ".m4r" format is exactly the same as the ".m4a" format other than an "r" rather than an "a" in the extension.
  • AMR: Audio compression format specialized in speech used by Nokia before mp3 became standard.
  • eMelody: Older monophonic Ericsson format.
  • iMelody: Most new phones that don't do Nokia's Smart Messaging are using this monophonic format.
  • KWS: Kyocera's ringer format.
  • MID / MIDI: Popular sound format.
  • Morse code: Text files with a .MORSE extension get converted into morse code songs.
  • MOT: An older ringer format for Motorola phones.
  • MP3: Most phones support ring tones that are mp3 format.
  • Nokia / SCKL / OTT: Nokia Smart Messaging format. Nokia phones can receive ring tones as a text message. Ring tone tools can create these text messages. This allows anyone with a compatible phone to load their own ring tones in without a data cable. There are other phones besides Nokia that use this.
  • PDB: Palm database. This is the format used to load ring tones on PDA phones such as the Kyocera 6035 and the Handspring Treo.
  • PMD: Format co-created by Qualcomm and Japanese company Faith which can include MIDI, sampled (PCM) audio, static graphics, animation, text, vibration and LED events
  • QCP: File format generated by Qualcomm PureVoice software. Especially well-suited for simple vocal recordings.
  • RTTTL: A popular text format for ring tones.
  • RTX: Similar to RTTTL with some advanced features. Also the octaves are different on RTX.
  • Samsung1 & Samsung2: Samsung keypress format.
  • Siemens Keypress: Can create and read in a Siemens text file format.
  • Siemens SEO: Siemens SEO binary format.
  • SMAF: Yamaha music format that combines MIDI with instrument sound data (aka Module files). Filenames have the extension "MMF" or "MLD".

See also


  1. C-Type Ringers - Maintenance. Bell System Practice, issue 4 (Sept. 1978), section 501-250-303
  2. Sokolowski, Steve (1989). "Customize Your Phone", Ch. 8 "Telephone Melody Ringer". TAB Books, Blue Ridge Summit, PA. ISBN 0-8306-9354-8.
  3. Sokolowski, Steve (1989). "Customize Your Phone", Ch. 20 "Animated Telephone Ringer". TAB Books, Blue Ridge Summit, PA. ISBN 0-8306-9354-8.
  4. Bigelow, Carr and Winder (2001). "Understanding Telephone Electronics", Fourth Edition. Newnes. ISBN 0-7506-7175-0.
  5., retrieved on September 6 2008 ( Cache)
  6. Time Magazine Europe: The Sweet Sound Of Success
  7. First ever MEF Special Recognition Award goes to the pioneer of the mobile ringtone business — "Vesku" Paananen, a June 4, 2004 press release from the Mobile Entertainment Forum
  8. Ring My Bell, a 2005 article from The New Yorker
  9. Evolution of Ringtones from SendMe Mobile
  10. Shrinking Ringtone Sales Lead to Decline in U.S. Mobile Music Market, an August 5, 2009 press release published on the Entrepreneur magazine website
  11. "Jamster slammed for mobile selling practices", InfoWorld, April 5, 2005. Retrieved March 15, 2007.
  12. Summary of FORD V. VERISIGN, INC., JAMSTER!, et al., Callahan, McCune and Willis. Retrieved March 15, 2007.
  13. "Sprint and Cingular Named in Complaints", The New York Times, July 21, 2005. Retrieved March 16, 2007.
  14. Utility Consumers' Action Network v. Cingular Wireless-Complaint and Request for Cease and Desist Order, California Public Utilities Commission, July 20, 2005. Retrieved March 16, 2007.
  15. UCAN and Cingular reached a settlement on October 19, 2006, which resulted in stronger notification and authorization requirements for Cingular regarding non-communications charges and also required Cingular to institute a ready means to address billing issues and cancel wireless content services, such as ring tones.
  16. Utility Consumers' Action Network v. Cingular Wireless-Opinion Approving Settlement, California Public Utilities Commission, October 19, 2006. Retrieved March 16, 2007.
  17. 2002 news release on KDDI (au) official website, retrieved on September 7 2008

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