To Build a Ringtone

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Fans of The Office will remember the scene in which Dunder Mifflin employee Andy Bernard proudly introduces his patented cell phone ringtone consisting of an a capella arrangement of Rockin' Robin featuring multiple vocal parts all performed by Andy Bernard.

Now, I remember when a ringtone was a feature. Oooh! You can change the ringer! Aaah! You can upload your own songs! (Meaning, download songs from the provider at a dollar a piece.) Since then, the lowly ringtone has somehow...mutated...from an obscure cell phone gimmick, to a cultural monster. Love ringtones or hate them; you won't be permitted to escape them. Is a Nelson laugh appropriate here?

Anyway, after watching the episode, I decided to dust off the piano and compose and record a ringtone from scratch.

Now, I didn't want to make a ringtone that "sounded cool". That's just lame. Also, my music, like my code, is largely crap. And there are rules which have to be observed. A ringtone is a structured musical composition (no different than a sonata or a waltz or a four-piece headbanger rock anthem). It should be short. It should tend toward the higher ranges, for better sound penetration. It should be annoying and/or pleading: ANSWER!! ANSWER!! ANSWER!! YEP!! I'M STILL RINGING!! NOT GONNA STOP!! ANSWER!! It should contribute towards feelings of anxiety, rage, and/or depression. I don't buy in to the school of thought which holds that ringtones should be truncated twenty-second samples of our favorite songs ramrodded through the cheesy bifurcated audio of a $200 cell phone. Call me a purist, but to me, a ringtone should stay true to its low-fi monophonic 80's-era tinfoil synthesizer roots.

In other words, a ringtone should evoke the sound of a phone ringing annoyingly.

That decided, I sat down at the keyboard, cracked open my copy of Sonar, and got started. I chose E Minor because it's an easy key to play in, and if you play with a lot of band-type-people you'll start using E Minor as a defense mechanism against guitar players who have to fiddle and futz when you hit them with a key like D-flat. Everybody can play in E. Also, I wanted a quasi-classical "silent movie" sort of feel to the ringtone, and I think the key of E Minor tends to evoke that feel (C Minor is another good one). And I don't want any music geeks telling me that there's no qualitative difference between keys under equal temperament. All such complaints will be ignored.

Ah, one more thing. In my opinion, a ringtone should have three parts:

  • Part 1. I'm ringing. Answer me.
  • Part 3. Okay, Mr. Irresponsible. I know you're not going to answer me. I'm going to ring for another 10 seconds anyway.

Which calls for an ABA compositional layout, which you'll hear in the audio to follow. Which I will now present for your headache-inducing enjoyment, without further ado.

Ringtone in E Minor (MP3)

Here's an embedded version of the same. I have no idea if this will play on your computer. If you're lucky, it won't. However, I don't think you're lucky. If anybody knows of a better or more standard way of embedding MP3s on a web page, I'd love to hear it.

This is my ringtone. There are many like it but this one is mine. I take great pleasure in strategically placing my cell phone on my desk in a crowded work environment, leaving the room, and dialing it repeatedly from a nearby landline. This for the benefit of the guy trying to debug a multi-threaded proprietary back-end server app a dozen feet away.

Tags: ringtone, composition, music

27 comment(s)

I love the f##k-all randomness of your posts. You sir are one of the strangest bloggers I've ever come across. Not saying that's a bad thing... I'm here reading... and commenting... but man... weren't we talking about the technicalities of the dash just a couple days ago?

...And I notice it's April Fools day.

I didn't know you were into music. I haven't listened to the ringtone (no speakers here at work) but I do some composition of my own. I'll give it a listen later.

Also I noticed you pulled down the Digg/reddit counters, a decision I wholeheartedly endorse.

For the embedded MP3: why not just create a YouTube video and embed it that way?


The B section is insanely annoying to an evil-genius level of insanity :)

Completely awesome. Corny as hell, but awesome. I'd never, ever use such a ringtone. <<shudders>> But I know from experience what it takes to write something like that. <<shudders>>

Step 1: open window Step 2: throw phone Step 3: close winow

LOL! Dude, that's where I got my nickname!!

Andy Barnard: "Sometimes I say beer me it gets a laugh like 20% of the time."

The Office rocks forever. This Bud's for you.

Yeah a guy named JS used to compose ringtones some 300 years ago and actually did a better job than you do.

For a blog called 'Coding the Wheel' havent seen many code related posts in far too long... Sure its interesting to stray a bit, but when you gonna get back to code stuff?

Is it bad that I like your ringtone for its musical qualities?

"Yeah a guy named JS used to compose ringtones some 300 years ago and actually did a better job than you do."

I don't think JD was putting this out there as 'hey look at my cool new ringtone'. I think it was April Fool's day and he did a light post and specifically said 'this is an annoying ringtone'. The whole point of the post. Sheesh. These responses remind me of the thing he posted on YouTube which every YouTube idiot proceeded to say 'hey! cheating! cheat!' when he specifically said 'this is a gimmick'.

And who the hell JS? You mean JSB? Who is JS?

I got your back JD.

So does this mean you are going to do some posts on music composition? I am a composer myself (as well as a programmer) and would love to see how you approach the topic. I see huge similarity in the two skillsets... which is probably why so many musicians end up doing programming.

There are no qualitative differences between keys under equal temperament.

Just kidding of course. Nice composition! There really needs to be a society of coding musicians, I know (or in many cases, know of) so many "musical coders", for lack of a better term. It would be a truly great group to be a member of in my opinion.

As to the ringtone, I just keep a sound that sounds like an old-school phone, you know, the type that used bells for the ringer. I generally find musical ringtones so annoying that I can't be a hypocrite and put up my own. It had never occurred to me to use a composition of mine as a ringtone though, so I'll have to give that some thought.


The B section is awesome --- truly divergent, in a way that 99% of your readers will never understand. The only problem with your ringtone is that we live in a world of Hanna Montana and Blink 187 and other sophomoric music.

You should do the exact same composition but use a harsh triangle wave reminiscent of an 80s synths' excuse for an oboe. Combined with the obnoxious "low-fi monophonic 80's-era tinfoil synthesizer" quality and the dizzying assortment of notes you might actually make me vomit.

Coding, poker, typography, and music; what's not to like?

Technically it's not ABA form. It's AABAA or maybe AABAC because of the repeat.

This post was a welcome break from coding and the other technobabble on this site.

By the way, I don't know what instrument you used for that recording, but it's horrible. There are much better pianos available.

[i]>Technically it's not ABA form. It's AABAA or maybe AABAC because of the repeat.[/i]

It's still ABA.

This ringtone strongly reminds me of Beethoven - Piano Sonata No. 14 Op. 27, 2 in C Sharp Minor ''Moonlight'' - III. Presto Agitato

Hava a listen!

Amazing tune! I have to listen to it over and over again. I'm also using it as my ring tone.

nice article, btw the video has been deleted from youtube

It is beautifull!

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


It is my great pleasure to read this article.

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