• News Feeds
Page last updated at 09:04 GMT, Monday, 24 October 2011 10:04 UK
The man behind the polyphonic ringtone

By Tom Bateman
Today Programme

Thomas Dolby

The 1980s synthesiser pioneer Thomas Dolby is releasing his first album in two decades, but you might know him better by his other achievement - a revolution in mobile phone ringtones.

It is possibly the world's best known mobile phone ringtone and, depending on your perspective, arguably its most annoying.

But there is little doubting the success of Nokia's famous musical logo, which is said to be heard globally nearly two billion times per day, about 20,000 times per second.

One man who helped bring the world the sonic phrase known simply as "the Nokia tune" is the British musician Thomas Dolby, best known for his synthesiser-based hits of the 1980s.

Sitting in a studio on board his converted 1930s lifeboat on the Suffolk coast, Dolby explains how he went from releasing records to helping make telecommunications history.

"At the beginning of the 90s I was getting pretty jaded with the music business," he says as he sits beside two screens glowing with editing software.

"So I went to Silicon Valley, which was very exciting, and for the first time computer companies were starting to take music seriously."

Dolby set up a firm that created "polyphonic" virtual synthesisers - software that allowed computers to play musical notes and, importantly, to play more than one sound at the same time.

Global volume

"We probably would have gone up in smoke like most of those dot coms, were in not for the fact that the world's largest phone manufacturer Nokia came along and licensed the synthesiser that we created," he explains.

It was a deal that was to have an astonishing impact.

A man throws a mobile phone into a ton
Not everyone will thank Thomas Dolby for the polyphonic ringtone

Since that time every Nokia mobile phone, as well as those of many of the company's competitors, has contained Dolby's polyphonic ringtone synthesiser.

The musician says it means his software is contained in nearly three billion mobile phones around the world.

One of the first jobs Dolby did for the company was to work on an updated version of the Nokia tune ringtone.

"The melody was already their jingle but the first polyphonic ringtone of it was made by my team," he says.

The company had taken the musical logo from a short phrase contained in a composition written in 1902 by the Spanish classical musician Francisco Tarrega.

His work, Gran Vals, was available to use without the risk of infringing copyright because the composer had been dead for so long.

According to Dolby, Nokia had initially wanted to use sections of contemporary pop songs for their ringtones, but switched to the older work when they realised there would be royalties to pay on modern songs.

The musician admits that people point at him "accusingly" when they discover he is "to blame" for the modern version of the ringtone.

Calling back

But he describes his creation of the polyphonic synthesiser in mobile phones as a "golden age of the ringtone".

"Little tiny clips of the latest Adele song going off are just not quite the same.

"There's a certain purity about the polyphonic ringtone that will never be replicated," he says with a chuckle.

The trautonium, an electronic keyboard instrument, circa 1930.
Synthesisers now fit inside your pocket

Dolby chooses not to talk about how much the Nokia deal was worth, or how much he made from it - but it might be reasonable to assert that it's probably left him better off than if he'd stuck solely to the notoriously tough world of music.

The 53-year-old is now making a full return to the industry he started out in.

His first new album in 20 years, A Map of the Floating City, is released on Monday.

He describes it as "more than just an album", with the work being complimented with an online game.

It is fitting for Dolby that contemporary technology is woven into the idea behind the work - and there is certainly no return to the big synthesiser sounds contained in his tracks of the 1980s.

Given his role in expanding technological consumption around the world, there is an irony in Dolby's new approach to his music.

It seems the now ubiquitous nature of synthesisers and computers in music has caused him to retreat from their obvious presence in his new album.

"As technology has made it easier for a large number of people to get their hands on the exciting tools, it's become less important for to try and make groundbreaking sounds," he explains.

"The individual personality and the story telling behind the songs is what has become most important to me."

Thomas Dolby's A Map of the Floating City is released on Monday 24 October and his UK tour begins on 4 November.

Ajibola Lewis (right) with her daughter Police custody 'scandal'
A charity calls for a public inquiry into the number of people who die while being held by police.

Christmas tree Mass Observing the season
The spirits of Christmases past, as seen by the British people

Children selling low-value goods at the roadside are a familiar sight in Liberia Catch-22
Evan Davis examines Liberia's attempt to rebuild its economy following the recent civil war.



Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific