Ringtones and the Limits of Music

Having finally acquired a smartphone, I had to choose a ringtone. A trivial problem; but one that blew my thoughts into more philosophical directions.

Many people choose for this purpose some favourite piece of music. I find this hard to understand. Of all the music I know and enjoy, I can’t think of any piece I would want to cut down to a few seconds, degrade to a mere signal, to be controlled by any odd caller. Hey, pick up the phone!

For a ringtone is nothing but a signal; it’s not music. At least, I tended to think that there should be a basic difference between one thing and the other.

What is music? — the question has never been answered with a watertight definition. The art of combining sounds in a manner pleasant to hear, says Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his 1768 Dictionnaire. As an informal circumscription that may be good enough. But we do not need a definition of music to speak about the wide range of its manifestations, of all kinds of music, and how they differ. And we’ll probably agree that some of these are more typically “music” than others. Say, Kind of Blue rather than a Christian Reformed community chanting psalms.

But here we’re entering an area of vague borders. Which is fascinating, because it is this very vagueness that forces us to focus upon the working of our mind, rather than an imagined essence of the thing itself. It’s not about the sounds, but about us. What do we do when we “combine sounds”, and why do we do it?

Jean-Jacques’ pleasure of hearing catches something of the why, but remains at the same time vague and too narrow. Music is not just for the ears. Dance music goes in through the ears but directs the feet, and qualities that make some music great for dancing are at the same time musical qualities. The masses of Josquin and Mozart are great musical  art, but cannot be understood apart from their religious-ritual function. Music for listening and nothing but listening is rare or nonexistent.

It may therefore be impossible to separate music as an art from a great diversity of functions. On the other hand, acoustic signals often have musical characteristics. Think of military signals traditionally played on trumpet or bugle: they consist of the tones of a triad, which is a consequence of the instrument’s acoustic properties, but at the same time provides a fundamental building block for music. The signals developed for the hunting horn in the early eighteenth century by the Marquis de Dampierre are actual tunes, and they were played during the hunt by professional musicians rather than by the hunters themselves (the instrument is difficult and unwieldy). With their musical characteristics these military and hunting signals could easily be incorporated into concert music, as has been done by composers as diverse as Haydn and Mahler. In the process they lost their signalling function (evidently!), but not the functional associations of which listeners were (and often still are) aware.

Back to my ringtone problem.

The smartphone has no sound in itself, unlike the good old-fashioned telephone which was equipped with a mechanical bell. Every sound that may come out of that surprisingly flat little computer is fake. So, I might use the recorded rrring of an old-fashioned telephone and stick with a signal pure and simple, but the choice would be as arbitrary as any other.

At the same time, the bell sound has qualities to recommend it. Loud and clear, but not necessarily unpleasant.

The word ringtone seems to date from the 1980’s, and to be used exclusively for the sound bites stored on cell phones. But ringtones-of-a-sort have been made for centuries — with bells. Think of the Westminster chimes, a series of four-note permutations. Primarily signal, barely melody, barely music. On the other hand, that odd Dutch-Flemish tradition to mark the hour with a piece of carillon music. A true ringtone, or ringtune, and true music. And exactly because of that it may get annoying. Until you stop noticing, or start listening to it as if it were not music — just bells.

I decided that I wanted something barely melodious, barely musical, just (sampled) bells, but a few more than the Westminster chimes. So, this is what I will hear when you choose to set off my alarm:

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