The Harmonic Language of Ringtones

I’ve always been a Nokia phone user until now, the arrival of my new generation iPhone, and checking out the new ringtones in such close proximity to writing my Scales as Propaganda blog entry made me listen to my options with slightly different ears.  Each phone I’ve upgraded to has had improvements in the quality of sound used for the ringtone, but each new upgraded phone has also had a completely new suite of tiny compositions competing for my approval.

How do these micro-musics reflect the pitch patterns of our day?  A quick analysis of my new iPhone options:

To start with let’s subtract from the 25 standard ringtones the non-pitched or single-pitched options:  ‘Bark’, ‘Boing’, ‘Crickets’, ‘Duck’, ‘Motorcycle’, ‘Old Car Horn’, ‘Pinball’, ‘Robot’, and arguably ‘Digital’ which is pitched, but basically just use old-fashioned fax or dialup-style harmonics, ‘Alarm’ which is also a harmonic-derived sound which really only signifies ‘alarm’ in any sonic sense, ‘Timba’ which is a drumming pattern, and finally  the minimalistic ‘Sonar’  which features a single pitch echoed at diminishing dynamic levels. So now we have 13 pitched options remaining.

‘Marimba’ is the default setting, a jaunty major pentatonic theme. ‘Ascending’ is a straightforward chromatic scale. ‘Bell Tower’ uses all the notes of the major scale except the seventh, and there is no suggestion in the melodic construction to suggest that the seventh would be anything other than major.

There are some ring-tones which simply outline a basic interval, such as ‘Doorbell’ (a descending minor 3rd), ‘Trill’ (literally, a trill on a semitone), and ‘Old Phone’, the traditional mid-20th century phone ringing sound, a major 3rd bell tone.

‘Harp’ goes to the effort of outlining a complete minor arpeggio (in root position).

‘Sci Fi’ is a variation on the interval of a semitone and an octave; it ascends a semitone, before dropping to the octave below the opening note and descending a semitone which then slowly bends the pitch a further semitone lower.

‘Time Passing’ is an interestingly contemporary phenomenon: a perfect 5th followed by another perfect 5th a semitone higher before returning to the original pitch.  This tonic/flattened supertonic chord alternation is one I’ve used in my own educational piano music (for instance Cloak and Dagger, currently a Grade 2 examination piece for the Australian Music Examination Board piano syllabus), and is a harmonic shape that was not in common usage until the latter third of the 20th century.

‘Xylophone’ uses the sound first incorporated into popular culture through music of American Beauty, and with its distinctive percussive tone colour, and a theme in the Dorian mode. ‘Strum’ is true to its name, strumming out three chords: a tonic major chord, a subdominant major chord, and finally a tonic major 7th chord, distinctively voiced to suit performance on an acoustic guitar .

‘Piano Riff’ is exactly that, a simple and tiny riff played on the piano that could have come from any number of blues influenced popular songs from the past 40 or 50 years.  Acciaccature, or crushed notes(depending on which language you choose to label your ornamentations) are a significant musical feature of this ringtone, which moves from the tonic to the subdominant and then back again via a harmonically ambiguous third (is this riff in a minor or a major tonality?).

Finally, ‘Blues’ outlines what is classically known as a dominant seventh chord, or the tonic 7th chord if you are working in a Mixolydian mode, along with some melodic ornamentation, which in fact creates an interesting an label-less scale… If we work from a major scale and make alterations we can describe this scale as having a raised 2nd, a raised 4th and a flattened 7th.  Another way of looking at this scale is as a harmonic minor scale with a flattened 5th (creating a diminished, rather than minor, tonic), starting on the 6th degree. (A bit complicated when you first think about it, especially if you’ve never thought about any scales beyond major and minor before).  I think this scale is the closest a 7-note pitch pattern can get to the melodic language of the blues (the both laughable and lamentable so-called blues scale being desperately wide of the mark), bearing in mind that the fundamental harmonic language of the blues is that of the mixolydian mode.

In all, these ringtones do express an interesting harmonic cross-section of contemporary musical language. But is this harmonic cross-section in any way significant?  And how do these 2009 iPhone ringtones compare to the standard ringtones in my 2007 Nokia N95?  Watch this space….

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