By Deepak Gopalakrishnan Feb. 20, 2020
If you are of a certain vintage, you’d be forgiven for asking “why make a ringtone when you can just download a song instead?” But the world was different in 2004 — back then phone ringtones were a well of creative expression.
16B2 16A2 4B2 4E2 4- 8- 16C3 16B2 8C3 8B2, and so it goes…
Now, that may seem like a pile of gibberish to you. But to me, about 12 years ago, it was the culmination of dozens of hours of hard work, which, when entered into the “ringtone composer” of a Nokia 3310, would play the first few notes of the iconic keyboard intro to “The Final Countdown” by Swedish rock band Europe.
If you are of a certain vintage, you’d be forgiven for asking “why take the trouble to do all that when you could just download the song?”, or indeed, “what is a Nokia 3310?” Heck, you could be excused for taking a minute to remember what a ringtone is — increasing mobile etiquette means you are more likely to hear the unmistakable “whrrrrr” of a vibrating phone on a table rather than your favourite tune blaring for a few seconds every few hours. You could also argue that this itself is a rare occurrence these days, considering people prefer to text than call (rightly so!). Meanwhile, with the advent of streaming, when was the last time any of us dealt with a music file at all, let alone took the effort of setting it as a tone?
But the world was different in 2004. Orkut was popular. We flipped out over 512 MB memory cards. Back then, our phones were fairly spartan — not just in terms of specs and features, but also in terms of options for entertainment. Unlike now, where we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to games and content, back then we had to find various ways of entertaining ourselves in whatever way we could.
It’s a silly thing to romanticise, I know, but it harks back to a simpler time, when we had to find ways to entertain ourselves.
Ringtones were one such potential well of creative expression. You could make your own — all you needed was some time and a ringtonable tune. And since being in the third year of an engineering college provided an abundance of the former, it became a worthy pastime for some of us who didn’t quite have the skill to play the intro to Californication on the guitar. It was a neat way of showing off our “evolved” musical tastes. Here, for example, is what those weird notes I put at the top of this article sounded like:
Quaint, isn’t it?
From those monophonic ringtones, we graduated to polyphonic with the advent of better phones. This basically meant that your ringtone would still sound rudimentary, but with the inclusion of a few more instruments. Like this:
Once I got used to that, I saw an opportunity to take up even geekier hobbies — I used a guitar software called Guitar Pro (which would teach you how to play your favourite songs) to extract select parts of songs as MIDI files and load them as ringtones. So I had the solo of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” and the intro to Metallica’s “Fade to Black” as my ringtones, suitably impressing the parts of my college that read the Hindu and followed the English Premier League. Very satisfying. Very DIY.
Then when MP3s, in all their — legal or illegal — glory became standard, it was suddenly silly to take pride in a MIDI file, much like deciding to play Book Cricket when you have access to Brian Lara ’09 on a PlayStation. And now, of course, nobody gives a flying fuchsia about ringtones anymore.
It’s a silly thing to romanticise, I know, but it harks back to a simpler time, when we had to find ways to entertain ourselves. And while we’re definitely better off now (goodness knows my third year in college would have been better spent watching a good Netflix documentary than trying to transcribe the intro to “Hotel California” on a phone), I kinda miss that DIY mentality that blended craft, joblessness and knowhow.
Deepak 'Chuck' Gopalakrishnan is a freelance writer and marketing guy who lives in Mumbai. He runs two podcasts (Simblified, The Origin Of Things) and a satire newsletter (The Third Slip). He used to work in advertising until his soul couldn't take it anymore, and now spends all his time annoying his cats, listening to prog-metal, cycling and writing bios of himself in third person. He has an irrational love for cold water and Tabasco.