How Nokia ringtones became the first viral earworms

One of the internet’s better-known ringtone archivists was barely alive to witness the golden age of his biggest hobby. The 20-year-old Scottish musician, who prefers to be known by his online handle Fusoxide, got hooked through an Alcatel flip phone he had as a kid. “I love the sound of old ringtones, partly due to nostalgia and partly because I think there’s genuine underlooked gems,” he says. Today, Fusoxide is behind the popular @ringtonebangers Twitter account. With others, like @OldPhonePreserv, he helps to maintain Andre Louis’ phonetones directory — a repository of phone software, sound banks, ringtones, and audio ephemera from a bygone era. 

Reaching out to Fusoxide about a defining part of my lived childhood — the ’90s were a very special but awkward teething period for mobile phones — feels like a weird dream where time makes no sense. It sends me down a YouTube rabbit hole of old Nokia ringtones until I realize that my cat hates them and isn’t afraid to tell me. As he howls in confusion at the shrill bleeps, I realize that if you yanked me back to 2002 after years of quiet, discreet phone etiquette, I would probably feel the same. And yet, my curiosity remains. With younger people interested in ringtones, how have perceptions changed about their origins, and how have ringtones lived on in modern soundscapes?

The groundbreaking ringtone work at Nokia is largely kept alive by hobbyists who extract ringtones from old firmware. “Sometimes the firmware is encrypted so it’s near impossible to get the files,” Fusoxide explains. “A lot of the time these packs are handled by more experienced people.” His love for the cultural aspects of the medium has made @ringtonebangers into more than just a casual archive thanks to his ongoing efforts to ask composers for files and interviews; some of his famous followers include music critic Anthony Fantano and Rebecca Black, whose new music proves that ringtones still have a palpable echo in pop production, decades after their peak.

Ringtone culture arguably began in the mid-’90s with the Nokia Tune, which borrowed from the song “Gran Vals” by classical guitarist Francisco Tárrega. Wherever you went back then, it was impossible to escape the sound of Tárrega’s greatest legacy. Timo Anttila, one of Nokia’s early in-house composers, bought his first phone, a Nokia 2110, in 1996. “Suddenly everybody got their own phone and everyone wanted to have personal ringtones and background images,” he says. “First buzzer tunes were… really annoying, but those were iconic and changed the sonic environment quite dramatically.” When Nokia unveiled the world’s first polyphonic ringtone in 2002, piercing melodies became a ubiquitous part of daily life and took on new significance as a form of personal expression.

The groundbreaking ringtone work at Nokia is largely kept alive by hobbyists

Besides Anttila, the Nokia sound team was made up of young composers like Hannu af Ursin and Henry Daw as well as Aleksi Eeben, Markus Castrén, and contractors like Ian Livingstone and Noa Nakai. Castrén and Eeben were involved in the demoscene where experimental coders and artists pushed the boundaries of computer-generated art and music. Af Ursin was an underground DJ who co-ran a club night called Miau! in Tampere, Finland. “We made quite a few tracks and some of them ended up in great places like Global Underground,” he says. 

In 2000, Livingstone placed a magazine ad looking for work under the company name “MTS Media Themes and Sound Design.” When Nokia’s then-head of audio Jarkko Ylikoski responded, he was forced to reveal that MTS was just himself working out of a bedroom. Livingstone, who’s since scored Forza Horizon 5 and multiple Total War games (among many other things), didn’t even have a mobile when he started contract work at Nokia. “I’d spent a few years programming karaoke backing tracks via MIDIfiles for Roland — basically transcribing famous pop songs and reproducing [them] via a tiny General MIDI soundset,” he says. “So I had quite a few tricks up my sleeve making the most out of limited sound resources.” A year later, he produced the first polyphonic version of the Nokia Tune, which was initially released as a South Korean Nokia exclusive before it launched worldwide.  

Nokia was poised to conquer the limitations of the phones’ small speakers and capture the sonic zeitgeist of the early 2000s — the heyday of club kids, trance, and house music. His first week on the job, Daw was shown to a room and asked to create ringtones with a small keyboard and a PC with Cubase audio software, which he didn’t know well. “It was a little daunting at first, but I soon got into and relished the challenge,” he says. The team occasionally examined competitor phones for research. According to af Ursin, their biggest fear was that customers would set up a new phone and find nothing that suited their tastes; the goal was for phones to come loaded with “something for everybody.” Eventually, Nokia worked with Beatnik, a pioneering audio tech company founded by 1980s MTV darling Thomas Dolby, which Livingstone remembers as a “huge step forward” for MIDI quality. 

Around 2005, Anttila realized that, wherever he went, he could hear a ringtone that he’d either composed or collaborated on. “By that time everyone had their phone sounds on in public. There were ringtones everywhere and most of the Finns had Nokias. That was really weird,” he says. “Nobody [knew] who did this and the amount of plays those tracks [had] globally every day… if you calculate the amount of phones that would make [the Nokia composers] one of the most recorded artists ever.” Not everyone appreciated the dulcet tones of Nokia’s pioneering ringtone work, though. While working on various versions of the Nokia Tune, Livingstone, who ended up installing a recording studio in his cellar, remembers a weak spot in the soundproofing that led to the kitchen. “It used to drive my wife mad having to listen to the Nokia ringtone over and over again for hours and days on end!” he says. 

Superstar musicians like Brian Eno (who famously wrote the Windows 95 sound), Kruder & Dorfmeister, and Ryuichi Sakamoto got involved. Artists Alison Craighead and Jon Thomson conceptualized the first silent ringtone on their experimental shop. A booming subindustry sprang up around custom ringtones, especially when it came to pop songs and ringtone rap. In high school, I paid for $1 versions of “Sandstorm” and every Alice Deejay song on my Nokia. Ringtones became a defining part of hip-hop production styles. By 2007, Nokia had a global market share of 50.9 percent, and everyone had terminal ringtone brain. But it was the pioneering work of invisible composers like Castrén, af Ursin, Anttila, Daw, and their colleagues that shaped our psychological relationship with the modern earworm today. 

Culture critic Geeta Dayal, who specializes in electronic music and technology, is uniquely equipped to pinpoint the ringtone’s underlying presence in music tech today. “For me, TikTok is like the new ringtones,” she says of the way users skim through the app’s snippets of sound. “These songs on TikTok become these memes really quickly, and little pieces of these songs… some old song that people have forgotten about, suddenly becomes super hot again, because of TikTok… in a way, it’s like the new sonic signatures, and the excitement that used to be around ringtones.” Ringtones, once an overt external outpouring of personal expression (and for some, a way of showing taste or cultural capital), have become reborn as internal, shared memes that exist on a smattering of social media platforms. 

With ringtone archiving being done by younger folks like Fusoxide (“the ringtone community… is mostly just a subset of the old phone community, which is filled with lots of immature children,” he laments), there are small, fascinating nuances in the way different generations perceive the relationship between video game music and ringtones. When I ask Fusoxide about his thoughts on the relationship between chiptune music (eight-bit video game music) and ringtones, he tells me the scenes are mostly separate. “Most chiptune is inspired by game sound technology,” he says. “There’s a few people doing stuff in the style of old ringtones, but sadly not as many as I wish. I think the problem is either the tools being awkward to use (like Yamaha’s SMAF tools) or the obscurity of them (like Beatnik Editor).”

“For me, TikTok is like the new ringtones.”

Perhaps having a lived experience of “ringtone mania” on the heels of formative video game music has left my generation with a different take on the relationship between video games — especially Nintendo games — and the rise of ringtones. “Now, we might think of 8-bit chiptune music as a fun retro scene,” Dayal says. “You go back to Metroid or Marble Madness, or Zelda, and you can still remember those really economical, short pieces of [electronic] music that had a tremendous impact.”

Dayal adds that early games and early ringtones were born from similar challenges. “They were able to make music with this very limited set of tools that was so emotionally impactful, and so immediate, and so direct, that with all the constraints, they were able to make really interesting pieces of electronic music,” she says. “Ringtones in a way are a distillation of that kind of economy… you have so little time to get to the point that it’s the most exquisite distillation of the ideas that came out of video game music, of creating a maximum amount of impact with a very limited toolkit.”

Today, I don’t think much about ringtones — my phone is either on silent or, if I’m expecting an important call, set to an inoffensive jingle. “I do notice that people with iPhones tend to use one of the default Apple ringtones,” Dayal remarks. “There’s less of a sense that you need to express your individuality with your ringtone.” I wonder how the 20-somethings of the future will look back on preserving current mobile sound culture, but few sounds worthy of this posterity spring to mind. Maybe we’re truly cursed to live in a hauntological soundscape where everything bends toward nostalgia for polyphonic chaos. 

For now, the old Nokia crew is mostly surprised that there’s still interest in their work, and a couple — Anttila, for one — express regret that they didn’t hang on to old files back then. Livingstone, however, says he’s managed to save about 90 percent of the work he did and plans to get it organized to create an archive for the community. The work they achieved at Nokia, though, remains a consistently neglected part of electronic music history. “I remember just having a constant high working for them back then,” he says. “Felt like we were creating history together.”

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