Somebody pick up the phone – why music shouldn’t be background

As someone who hot-desks in several different offices, and as a regular commuter on trains full of business people, I’m often subjected to other people’s dubious choice of phone ringtone.

Now, we all want our ringtone to be individual – there’s nothing worse than a phone ringing and three people around the meeting room table all reaching for their iPhone – so you need something distinctive. But some choices seem odd, to say the least. As a failed dance music producer (and occasional maker of my own music) I have an issue with people who use a piece of commercially available music as their ringtone. But why?

Firstly, yes, I do realise that the money to be made from syndicating your track as a ringtone probably generates more money than people actually buying the recording through iTunes etc. We all need to make a buck, and it’s a good ‘revenue stream’ for those musicians whose artistic ideals come secondary to their desire for large wads of cash. So, I see why record labels do it.

But, ultimately, if you’ve sat with your battered six-string/grand piano/bedroom laptop studio for days at a time crafting the perfect song, do you really want it ending up as a ringtone? If it was me, I’d have to say no.

For a start, any music played through a phone sounds terrible! Tinny, distorted with less bottom than an over-zealous gym instructor. Most musicians will listen back to their creation through big studio-quality speaker systems. If you played the song through these bass-heavy, high definition speakers, and then compared them to the thin noise coming out of a phone’s speakers, the difference would be clear – a mouse’s squeak next to a lion’s roar. So, sound quality suffers, even more so than when we listen back through cheap, iPod-style headphones (as the majority of us seem to).

Secondly, as we all know, familiarity breeds contempt. Hearing a one or two-bar loop of the same chorus section every time the phone goes off becomes tiring very, very quickly. It’s no longer the uplifting chorus you sang along to, it’s now just another of the many background sounds we’re surrounded by in the course of our 21st century lives – Windows/Mac start-up noises, text alerts, ATM button presses, train ‘bing bongs’ prior to announcements etc. You can read more about those in my previous post here.

And lastly, music doesn’t actually make a very effective ring tone. You’re far more likely to hear an old-school ‘ring, ring’ or ‘beep, beep’ over the general hubbub of a busy London street, or a noisy bus journey. I could get very boring and talk about high and low frequencies and how the human ear is more likely to pick up on those around the 1K mark (roughly speaking, the frequency of human speech), but I won’t. Ah, I just did…well you know what I mean.

But the fact remains, a loop of your favourite house track – however much you like the music – isn’t a very good ringtone, because you just won’t hear it over the background noise we’re surrounded by.

And repeatedly subjecting those around you – whether in an office, factory, means of transport, restaurant or coffee shop – to your choice of music is a little…egotistical and self-orientated, isn’t it? One person’s Daft Punk is another person’s Cliff Richard, after all.

So, my plea is this. Choose a ringtone that sounds like a ringtone. And listen to music as the artist intended – in full, through decent speakers/headphones. Just don’t sing along when you’re on the bus…that’s a whole other blog post in the making!

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