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A Tribute to the Inventor of Ringtones

Remember the “ancient times”, when your cell phone had just two ring options: a shrill, electronic trill, or a scratchy melody (something incredibly dull, like Fur Elise) that came with the unit?

Those miserable days are over, thanks to the innovations introduced by a Finnish computer programmer named Vesa-Matti Paananen. When Nokia, the company he worked for, started experimenting with a nifty function called “smart messaging”, he was hit with a brilliant idea. If people could send text messages to each other, this same software could be used to deliver other types of information, such as the codes of songs. Paananen went straight to work, and came up with a program he dubbed “Harmonium”.

Harmonium was rough by today’s standards, but it set the foundation for the multi billion ringtone industry. It let people program musical sequences into their phones which they could forward to their friends. Users were no longer confined to the songs that were packaged into the units. The invention could’ve made him a billionaire, but Paananen also generously made Harmonium a freeware, ready to download from the Internet for free. Everyone could use it—and because of this, everyone did, and the phone ringtones started to proliferate.

Some phone ringtones were made by private individuals who just liked tinkering with the program or wanted to proudly share their creations with the rest of the world. Others collected these ringtones into one site (the pioneers of the multitude of ringtone providers you can now find on the web). Still others were companies that took Harmonium’s basic structure and put their engineers to work at developing it. They saw the potential in the software but wanted a richer, more realistic musical quality.

These companies were responsible for the leaps and jumps in ringtone technology. From the monophonic ringtones in Harmonium, they developed polyphonic ringtones, which synthesized various notes similar to those found in music boxes. The latest development is the true tone. These true tones are completely indistinguishable from the songs played on the radio, for the simple reason that they are actually recorded in a studio. Think of them as mini-music, a highly compressed excerpt from a full-length song.

Of course, these developments would not have been made possible without the improvements in the phone itself. The first units were large, clunky handsets with very little memory capacity. Songs were scratchy simply because there was very little room for complicated programs. (In fact, the first units could only hold a maximum of five or six ringtones.) Today’s phones are actually more powerful than the first computers. They can not only hold vast amounts of information—video footage, large photo files, and a hundred ringtones)—users can extend this capacity with a portable memory chip.

People have also become more tech-savvy in the last 15 years. It is not uncommon for teenagers to tinker with software that would’ve intimidated adults at the start of the computer age (this was the time when most people had grown up using typewriters). Many ringtone sites allow users to contribute their own creations, and these “musicians” are neither Nokia engineers nor computer geeks. They are regular people who have found a way to make music and deliver it to a worldwide audience, sans recording contract.

To think this all started with a big idea by a brilliant engineer with a big heart.

Thank you, Vesa-Matti Paananen.

About the Author: is a site specialising in the different genres of phone ringtones, including polyphonic ringtones and true tones.

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