From a humble jingle to a world-renowned piece of music that crosses cultural boundaries, Nokia’s seminal ringtone continues to signify much more than an incoming call.
It’s arguably the most-played melody today. With more than a billion Nokia handsets in global circulation, the renowned Nokia ringtone, which celebrates its twentieth birthday this year, is estimated to be played around 20,000 times a second.
But where did it all begin for what is commonly known as the ‘Nokia Tune’, and how has this short refrain, which started life as a piece of classical guitar music, developed over the years to shape an entire industry; the likes of which can still be heard on Nokia’s latest smartphones?
To give us an exclusive insight into its evolution and impact, we spoke to Nokia’s Head of Sound Design, Tapio Hakanen.
Back in 1992, Nokia ran its first ever television advertisement for mobile phones. The music playing to promote the Nokia 1011 was Grande Valse, by Francisco Tárrega.
The ad lasted 31 seconds, but it was an unremarkable three-second snippet in the middle (from 13 secs in the video below) that would go on to last a lifetime.
“Nowadays it doesn’t feel that special, but at that time technology adverts were super technical, felt very masculine and playing rock music. Having a soft acoustic guitar piece was so different. It was reflecting the human aspect of Nokia’s ‘connecting people’ motto. Back then, it was fresh”, says Tapio.
In 1993, new mobile phone technology arrived that enabled melodic, buzzer-like tones. But with progression came a question; what ringtone should be built into the latest handsets?
The answer was staring right at the team: Grande Valse. Or part of it, at least.
“That’s how Nokia Tune was born”, says Tapio, “The first product that came out with it was in 1994; the Nokia 2110. It was monophonic, meaning it played just one note at a time. It worked perfectly with the music”
In a short period of time that ensued, Nokia made a flurry of radical step changes in what was possible with mobile phone audio. The first being polyphonic capability, allowing more than one note to be played simultaneously. The first Nokia device to feature this was the Nokia 3510, which came out in 2002.
This was followed by the introduction of high-quality MIDI instrumentation on mobile devices such as the Nokia 7650 in 2002. This allowed multiple notes to be played at the same time with greater sound quality. Combined with the hardware advances, Grande Valse was starting to sound more real
After this came the potential to use a piece of recorded audio. In 2004 with the Nokia 9500 Nokia chose to use a piano version for its now-recognisable theme tune.
When the Nokia N95 was launched in 2007, Nokia switched back to the acoustic guitar as the lead instrument for its default ringtone.
“There was this nu-folk trend at the time. The singer-songwriter was back in fashion and this acoustic version reflected contemporary culture”, says Tapio.
Tapio continues: “However, the next evolutionary step – which started with the Nokia N9 – saw sound design reflecting the design of the actual device. The phones started to take a very pure form. The choice of audio for Nokia Tune echoed that visual sentiment; much more refined and simple.”
Making a sound decision
In recent years, the way in which new variations of Nokia Tune has been chosen has shifted. For the Lumia 920, the Nokia Design Sound Team – made up of sound professionals, producers, musicians and DJs – ran an internal project to generate four variants of Nokia Tune using acoustic and computer-generated elements.
“It needs to strike a good balance between being inoffensive, having character, being audible and recognisable”, says Tapio, “It can’t be vanilla – it needs to have its own personality, which is exactly what Nokia Tune is”.
In between the evolutionary progression of Nokia Tune, were a number of landmarks that unequivocally cemented the ringtone as part of popular culture, as Tapio explains:
“We suddenly realized that people were creating their own versions of Nokia Tune, which ended up on YouTube. Some were really great, so we opened up the idea and hosted a crowd-sourcing contest where the main prize was to have your version loaded onto the 2012 run of Nokia devices not as a default but as an option sitting next to Nokia’s default ringtone. The response was absolutely incredible.”
In 2011, more than 2,800 people from 70 countries entered the Nokia Tune remake competition, creating 6,238 versions of Nokia Tune – every single version was reviewed by the team at Nokia Design. The winning remake was a dubstep edition.
Tapio continues: “When I first joined Nokia six years ago, some people suggested that we should let go of the Nokia Tune. This competition showed how passionate people were about the tune and how much of an integral part of Nokia it is, and remains to be.”
Ringing loud, clear and everywhere
For twenty years Nokia Tune has been the default ringtone for all Nokia phones. That’s a lot of melody.
“We’re talking about billions of devices”, says Tapio, “We know that ten per cent of people don’t change their ringtone, so if a Nokia owner’s phone rings, on average, six or seven times per day, you can just imagine how many instances on the planet where that ringtone is heard”
“There are very few others who have been this consistent with their audio messaging over the same period of time. Nokia is such a global brand that the tune has travelled beyond the borders of culture and language. From an audio-branding perspective it’s still one of the most-recognized sonic logos alongside the likes of 20th Century Fox fanfare, THX sound effect or Intel sound logo.”
Starting with the monophonic buzzer and ending with a rich stereo recording of the Nokia Tune clearly represents the march of technological progression over the last two decades. However, even with the hardware advances, the essence of what makes a popular and usable ringtone remains.
Tuning into the next chapter
Along with the evolution of Nokia Tune and ever-continuing hardware improvements, the future will open up a wealth of new opportunities for what’s possible in the sound design space. No-one’s more aware of this than Tapio:
“Ringtones used to be short pieces of music. Now they’re a variety of functional sounds with very defined design language. The alarm clock, email, calendar, etc, are all designed with same tonality and instrumentation to form a family of sounds – a holistically designed sound experience. “
“It’s also inescapable to ignore sound as an ‘input and output’ method. With new technologies, such as the Cortana personal assistant on Windows Phone 8.1, we’ll soon be talking to our devices more and more and they’ll speak back to us. As we’ve discovered over the last 20 years, consistency needs to remain. It’ll be fascinating to see how voice will work ten years from now and what kind of personality it will give to the devices.”
One thing’s clear, though. We’ve already learned so much. It’s this knowledge that will carry us into the future as we develop even better devices and even more innovative technologies.
Just like the Nokia Tune, Conversations has grown from a humble corporate blog to what it is today – one of the most influential company and technology blogs in the world. Since we launched in 2008, we have published more than 7,000 stories, which have generated more than 80,000 comments and a readership in millions. We are truly humbled by the passionate and vocal community that exists around Conversations.
Today is a historic day for us at Conversations. Our time with the Nokia family comes to an end, but our seat at the table at the Microsoft family has been set. Wherever we sit, we’ll keep humming the Nokia Tune. Today, tomorrow and beyond.
Will you join us in the chorus?