Posted on May 25, 2023 in Technology

Evolution of the Ringtone in Media

Loud Buzzer Noise

You may notice in some older movies that instead of the traditional “Ring! Ring” noise of a telephone bell, there’s just a low flat buzz instead. This was a direct result of consumers complaining that they thought their telephone was ringing, got up to answer it, and missed part of the show for it. To this day, British television shows alter the noise of ringing phones to avoid confusing viewers – although now it confuses them in a different way, because some viewers from other countries assume that this is what British and American phones used to sound like back in the olden days of black and white film.

How media represents a social phenomenon is an excellent view into the forces of the phenomena’s time – how have ringtones changed in the past decades?

The House Phone

Big in horror movies and coming of age films, the seventies and eighties had house phones that were physically attached to the wall, with the ear piece attached to the phone hangar by a familiar curly cord. Phones were usually situated in the kitchen for ease-of-access for mom (society was struggling to adapt to second-wave feminism and housewives were still plenty common in sitcom TV shows), but with a cord long enough to walk around to nearby rooms. Around this time, some shows just let the original ring play, because the phone in the viewer’s house was probably in the kitchen, where it was too far away to be as loud as the sound playing from the television system. The multi-screen gag, where kids listen in on conversations with a second phone hooked up to the house line (a luxury) starts in this era. Doing something comparable now would be requiring the protagonist to accidentally set up a conference call on their mobile phone. It’s easier to just say the character meant for that to happen.

Of course, the non-linear adaptation of tech means that these phones hung around for quite some time! Nickolodeon’s Show As Told By Ginger features an episode using the house phone as a plot point, but the show started in the 2000s. The utility of the home phone didn’t disappear just because cellular phones were out and about. In fact, their unreliability made it kind of impolite to call about serious things on a cell phone at first! If you really needed to talk to someone, you called them on a landline, until mobile carriers got their act together.

Something Obnoxious

The 1990s brought portable phones, and the 2000s brought truly customizable flip phones that could do a lot of things, including recording video and audio. You could set a ringtone for each person on your phone, or use the same ringtone for everything. Cell service wasn’t as rock solid as it is now, but it was still totally possible to hold a conversation over the phone if both parties were in high-coverage areas. Unfortunately, the general public was unused to the tech, and so as a result phones were not always silenced in movie theaters or on busses. Or in funerals.

Comedy shows had plenty of fodder to joke about someone forgetting their ringtone was something completely inappropriate in front of strangers, receiving a call, and then fumbling to answer or silence their phone. The days of the home phone weren’t gone, but having a cell phone felt modern and cool. You didn’t have to talk out loud to talk to your friends, you just had to press a key three times to get to the letter V.

Good Vibrations

The phone ringtone flub appeared so much in comedy because it was such a real problem. Don’t text and drive, silence your phone in the movie theater, and set it to vibrate at weddings and funerals so you can discreetly answer a call if you need to.

Now, the default is setting phones to vibrate – plenty of people don’t know what their actual ringtone sounds like anymore because setting the device to vibrate is the easiest step you could take to avoid being potentially annoying in a quiet public place. Worse, some apps had specific rings when they gave an alert. Constantly hearing the tweet noise that the Twitter app used was infuriating.

Ringtones on TV are mostly gone, now! More modern media acknowledges that kids just do not set their phone to make sound anymore. Something may replace even the buzz, but the trend at the moment is a return to the buzz of days long past.