Ringtones: A Monophonic Memoir

Kevin Nguyen’s adolescence was more or less defined by the sound of his cellphone.


For a long time, I was obsessed with ringtones.

My first phone was a basic candybar Nokia with a bare bones set of features. My parents gave it to me at the beginning of high school, just before I got my learner’s permit. The phone made calls, texted, and not much else; its flashiest feature was the game Snake — more or less the same one every teenager had in 2002. It also came with a handful of ringtones, with no way to get more. My 16-year-old self would not accept this limitation.

I purchased a cord that hooked my phone to my PC (it cost me something like $30, a lot of money for a jobless high school sophomore). The cord came with software that allowed file transfers to the phone, but not much about how to use it. After a few hours of messing around, I figured out that ringtones were simple, monophonic MIDI files. Unfortunately, most of the MIDIs I found on the web at the time were too complex for my poor Nokia to handle. So I learned how to compose my own MIDI files.

I taught myself using crude, open-source software, and spent almost as much time deliberating over which songs to transpose to monophonic MIDI. Only songs with strong, recognizable melodies or riffs would work well. I went with “Daytripper” by the Beatles, and later “Axel F” by Harold Faltermeyer, better known as the theme song from Beverly Hills Cop.

Three years later, the Crazy Frog remix of “Axel F” would take Europe by storm. I still secretly believe that somebody was inspired by my ringtone.

Later in high school, I upgraded to some sort of generic Motorola flip phone. The make wasn’t as solid as my Nokia, but I was thrilled because it had a color screen and could take photos. (In the two years I had it, I snapped only seven photos, four of which were blurry beyond all recognition and taken accidentally.)

But for me, the best part of the flip phone was that it could play polyphonic ringtones. Whereas monophonic ringtones could only play a series of single notes, polyphonic files could hit several notes at a time. My universe of ringtone possibilities had greatly expanded. Again, I purchased a computer cord for it (this one cost $40) and scoured the web for polyphonic MIDIs.

My ringtones consisted entirely of songs from the score to the Star Wars movies.

In college, my roommate Max came up with the phrase “phantom vibration” to describe the experience of thinking your phone was ringing when it wasn’t. He also deduced that phantom vibrations often occur when you hear the first note of your ringtone in real life, which might lead to a conditioned reflex, like your leg shaking. Ringtones are like a modern Pavlovian bell.

Max came up with the idea in the fall of 2005, long before the concept of the phantom ring — also known now as ringxiety, fauxcellarms, and audio illusions — became popularized by a study from the California School of Professional Psychology.

Although we got along well, Max and I never had much in common, except for the fact that we both entered freshman year of college with girlfriends from home. We both spent a lot of time that fall on the phone, trying to find spots in our basement dorm room with decent reception.

My girlfriend, who was at another school across the country, always adored Death Cab for Cutie, a band that I could barely stomach. But as a gesture of affection, I set her ringtone to a Death Cab for Cutie song. It didn’t occur to me that I was the only one who could hear it.

The day we broke up, not long after the end of the first semester, I changed the ringtone to a Belle and Sebastian song she didn’t like.

It seems worth adding that Max’s ringtone for his girlfriend was “Wanna Be a Baller” by Lil’ Troy. His relationship lasted about two years longer than mine did.

The first phone I ever paid for was the Motoral Slvr, a candybar cousin of the popular Razr. At the time, I was impressed by the form factor, even though it turned out to be a real piece of shit.

But the one upside is that the phone supported truetones, meaning it could play real audio files like mp3s. I got to work right away.

Trimming mp3s down to a ringtone is pretty easy even with basic, free software. Getting them onto an actual phone was a much trickier process. Even if you had a PC-to-phone USB cord, many cellphones wouldn’t allow you to use any music files as ringtones. Obviously, this was a deliberate attempt to curb users from using their own mp3s as free ringtones.

But I came up with a handful of tricks to get around that. Each different carrier demanded a different method of circumvention. Some were as simple as sending files via Bluetooth from your computer instead; in other cases, it worked by emailing the mp3 to the phone. (Every phone number has an email address associated with it; to figure it out, you had to send a text message from that phone to another email address.)

I spent one evening making and transferring custom ringtones for each one of my housemates. Whether they were genuinely interested or just humoring me, I had no idea. I was too concentrated trying to figure out the email addresses of their phones.

It’s easy for me to add custom ringtones to my iPhone. You can purchase and trim any song from the iTunes Store with a built-in ringtone editor, but doing it for free is just as simple. (Drag a file from iTunes into GarageBand, trim, and choose Export as Ringtone). It’s so effortless, and yet I find myself changing my ringtone less and less. I only set specific ringtones for girlfriends and my mother, which I’m just realizing is actually sort of disturbing.

I suspect that it had to do with the limitations and challenges of my old phones. It required a few hours of labor and a little cleverness to make a kludgy piece of hardware feel like my own. Now, personalization is too goddamn easy.

My Life, Told Chronologically by Ringtones

  • “Daytripper” by the Beatles
  • “Axel F” by Harold Faltermeyer
  • “Cantina Band Theme” from Star Wars
  • “Soul Meets Body” by Death Cab for Cutie
  • “I’m a Cuckoo” by Belle and Sebastian
  • “Eraser” by No Age
  • “Reckoner” by Radiohead
  • “When I’m With You” by Best Coast

Photo by Siggi Churchill

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.