The Sound Heard Around the World

Push Button Blog

The Nokia ringtone. Otherwise known as the most identifiable audio brand tune on planet Earth. How did it gain so much awareness?

Audrey Arbeeny, founder of New York’s audio branding firm Audiobrain, states that she has never had anyone unable to identify the Nokia ringtone. At the peak of Nokia’s popularity in the ‘90s, the tune was heard nearly 1.8 billion times a day—and it’s still heard 20,000 times every second today.

Where did the tune come from? It is actually a snippet of a waltz piece, “Gran Vals” by Francisco Tarrega. It was used as a backtrack for a television spot for Nokia in 1992, and then part of it was chosen to become the ringtone. It was slightly modified to sound more electronic.

Today’s Apple ringtone is yesterday’s Nokia ringtone. Nokia is the pioneer. The tune was unique to the brand and became identifiable not only for Nokia, but for cellular phones in general. Similar to the generic trademark of all tissues often being called “Kleenex,” all phones were synonymous with the Nokia ringtone. With the burst of cellphone technology becoming widely used in a short period of time, this really boosted the Nokia tune’s awareness worldwide. The tune was used in media to represent all phones, such as its use in movie theatre messages to turn off cellphones before a film began. This contributed to making Nokia stand out as the dominating cellphone audio brand.

During the ‘90s, cellphones were seen as a status symbol. The Nokia tune was melodic, friendly and engaging. It made consumers connect with the brand. When that ringtone went off in your pocket, everyone in the room knew you had a Nokia phone.

Sound designer Henry Daw, who helped build Nokia’s audio brand, states, “During my time at Nokia, consistency was especially important for the core brand sounds…it’s important to understand that consistency doesn’t mean that everything needs to sound the same. Rather the aim is to sing from the same hymn sheet—your overall brand sound needs to follow similar guidelines and design principles.”

The technology of cellular phones is constantly changing. Your sound needs to match your product while staying brand consistent. Nokia is a great example of audio brand flexibility.

The first 90’s tune was a tonal, electronic buzzing sound. The early 2000’s ringtone stayed similar, but had a softer tone. The tune then became more classical sounding with piano, morphed to feature acoustic Spanish guitar, and with smartphones, became more modern, similar to Apple’s xylophone sound.