Does Your iPhone Need a Composer?

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John E. Low had composed music for movie trailers, 30-second commercials, television, and his original songs before it occurred to him to write music for the iPhone. Ringtones may only be two or three seconds long, but there are few songs played--and repeated--more often. “I wanted to minimize how annoying that could be,” he says.

Last week, Low released his first set of original ringtones and alarms. Called Morningbell Tones, the 72 mini-songs use an electric guitar, acoustic guitar, acoustic piano, and computer sound effects to interrupt your day as pleasantly as possible. With upbeat "organic," laid-back "ambient," "guitar," "electronic," and "esoteric" styles, all of them sound like something wonderful is about to happen--a pleasingly different sentiment than is usually associated with a ringing phone.

Finding the line between functional alert and nerve-wearing interruption was, Low says, at times difficult to pinpoint. He tested works in progress by playing them on loop for 15 minutes while doing tasks around his house. If the tone lulled him, he knew it was a keeper. If it started to sound shrill or obnoxious, he knew there was still work to do. “I was joking with my wife that ideally when the phone rang, [the goal was] you wouldn’t pick it up, you would just listen to it,” he says.

Morning Bells and other ringtone collections like it are a different, more mature version of the ringtone download fad, which at one point accounted for about $4.5 billion in annual sales. Though a much smaller business now than at its peak around 2006, iTunes' current top tones includes snippets borrowed from Despicable Me 2, Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus, and Luke Bryan. Top ringtones generally were not composed with the iPhone in mind.

While it's been a long time since the only choices for cell-phone rings were “The Mexican Hat Dance,” “Jingle Bells,” and Bethoven’s Fifth as played by keypad tones, hearing a pop song chorus every time the phone rings can hardly be called an improvement. Writing three-second songs that will be played over and over and over and over again on a daily basis should require different consideration than a three-minute song intended to be played once at a time.

Though composing for the smartphone hasn't quite caught fire in the music world, other musicians, such as movie score composer Ennio Morricone, have at least dabbled (Miley Cyrus can't be far behind, right?). In any case, Low says, most musicians could do it.

“You want them to be balanced and have some sort of arc, however short that may be, where it sounds like a finished product,” he says. “They’re just very short compositions.”

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