Bells, whistles, horns and alarms: the art and science of ringtones

Published 9:10 am Thursday, September 29, 2016

My husband has one of those jobs that, when things go wrong, no matter what time of day–or night­, and it’s mostly night–he will get a call. That call will come on his cellphone. And the ring tone that announces the bad news is possibly the most cringe-inducing noise known to man.

It’s a form of klaxon horn. The ringtone he uses comes from a 1966 movie, “Our Man Flint,” where it served as the ringer for the hotline between the president and the master spy hero. The same sound later appeared in the movies “Hudson Hawk” in 1991 and “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” in 1997.

This sound is apparently so irritating that it finds use decades after it first appears. And now it finds its way into our sleep, then kicks us out of it.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

So one recent night, a signal sound from the Swinging ‘60s made its way over the ether and into our domicile, causing two humans and two cats to levitate a good foot off the bed. Unable to sleep and avoiding the technical talk in the next room, I found myself following rabbit tracks on the Internet, trying to find out why that alarm was just so darned, well, alarming.

It turns out that many sirens are engineered to irritate us, and it’s not just the volume. They often combine two tones simultaneously, with pitches usually in a 5:6 frequency ratio, something in music called an untempered minor third, something that might make us uneasy, or sad.

Well, that’s what I learned from a search Google about it in the predawn hours.

Humans don’t really know just what’s hard-wired in the depths of our brains. We have innate fears of things like serpents and falling. And science knows we also have inborn attractions; there’s a whole field of science devoted to what makes shoppers buy what the retailer wants them to.

I’m pretty sure somewhere there’s someone out there studying the science of ringtones.

Maybe that research will find that I’m too hard on the blare from “Our Man Flint,” that my teeth are put on edge because it’s just nature at work. After all, I doubt hearing Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” or the song stylings of Barney the dinosaur would be really any more pleasant in the wee hours.