13 May 2005


You know, occasionally someone just “hits it” just right with an analogy or just says something that sums up the question that it basically makes the conversation just consider it, say OK, and go on to another topic. I love those moments.

Today for instance, I went out for lunch (and sort of never came back, hence this post). Some people were talking about ringtones, you know, those top-selling sound widgets for cell phones. Are they music? Like, how many technological iterations/translations does a song have to go through before it’s no longer “music”? Sure, OK, so your cell phone plays “Highway to Hell” when it rings and you consider that music, but then why go to Wal-Mart and make fun of the muzak they’re playing? Just because it’s a muzak version of “Mandy”— and you hate Barry Manilow— does that mean it’s not music? Or is it? And since it's not original, is it just a jingle, a tune, a melody, something less, something more? Does it matter why it's played, or where?

And what about original ringtones? Are cell phones a medium? Imagine the songs—typically, the longest a phone will ring is five or maybe eight seconds… just how compressed can these songs get before we de-/classify them as music? Is music written expressly for download/money music? Yes, absolutely, most would agree on that.

Word is that musicians are targeting this market and making ringtones written expressly for these devices. And don’t call these musicians hacks, either—remember, didn’t Brian Eno write the original windows XP (or was it 95?) startup and shutdown sound themes? Sure, it was for Microsoft's money (and why not?) but would Eno really have signed on to ANYTHING that wasn’t, in some small way (no pun intended) a musical challenge?

So I’m at the bar sipping my diet Coke, just sitting there, not really having any sort of opinion-- until someone asked me what I thought, that is. I said, “To me, a song isn’t really a song until someone covers it, like in a tribute album or as a ‘bar band’. Would you buy beer and stand around watching some guys cover ringtones?”

Hmmm. Yeah. I guess that would be MY criteria. What do you guys think?


Blogger Rev. Syung Myung Me said...

I know that Thomas Dolby's company is actually doing the same thing. I don't think Dolby himself is actually composing any of the ringtones, though. And I think Mark Mothersbaugh's company might also have that going on the side, too, actually. But I'd figure Mark's probably too busy scoring things to write tones.

And, yeah it was the 95 startup that Eno did. (Which makes me feel weird, because I haven't heard it in a while, but I remember _loathing_ that sound.)

But... as for the question... I'm not sure. I suppose the Covering Issue does kind of make sense. Although, I don't know. I mean, I'd consider most Muzak music (if, you know, awful music), but I wouldn't consider Eno's sound music. (Or at least the one from my memory. I think the '98-XP sound, which has the little tinkling piano bit that Eno had nothing to do with, is _kinda_ music. But I think that's just because there's more... notes or something. But notes can't really be the issue, since I'm weird and would consider, say, Cage's "4'33"" music. (Though, that DOES fit the covered rule...) So, hm, yeah. I'm not really sure. It's definitely something to think about.

I suppose my default is whether or not the composer considers it music. I think the Win95 sound would count, though, since IIRC, Eno's referred to it as a 3-second long piece of music, rather than a Sound or Noise, so... yeah. Hm.

Basically, I'm just sayin' I don't know. As for ringtones? I guess the ones that are melodic _are_ music, but the ones that are just straight rings aren't. Although, I suppose that the ringing ones aren't _intended_ to be music, so that definition could still work for that!

Although, either way, I think we can all agree that, music or not, 99% of ringtones are incredibly irritating.

5:30 PM, May 13, 2005  
Blogger Lee H. said...

VERY interesting question. Just this week Bill Gates said cell phones will eventually replace MP3 players... he's not always right about this kind of thing, but it's interesting to think about.

For some reason your post reminded me of a story I read in college by Stanislaw Lem, the Polish author. It was called "The Princess Ineffabelle," involving a king who wanted a digital replica of a Princess he had dreamed about (or something... it's been awhile). Here's the paragraph where he first sees her:

The King leaned over, looked and saw, yes, the Middle Ages simulated
to a T, all digital, binary, and nonlinear, and there was the land of
Dandelia, the Icicle Forest, the palace with the Helical Tower, the Aviary
That Neighed, and the Treasury with a Hundred Eyes as well; and there
was Ineffabelle herself, taking a slow, stochastic stroll through her simulated
garden, and her circuits glowed red and gold as she picked simulated
daisies and hummed a simulated song.

I first read this story reprinted in a philosophy book that pointed out, we can imagine a simulated garden, and even a simulated princess, but what's a simulated song?

9:55 PM, May 13, 2005  
Blogger Jay said...

Hmmm.... If Cage's time frame (i.e. 4 minutes, 33 seconds) is the principal defining characteristic of the piece; is it even theoretically possible to do a excerpt of it?

I mean, wouldn't a five-second ring-tone "version" of it be an entirely new piece (5" )?

I suppose you could record a performance of the 4'33" in it's entirety, and then use a 5 second sample of it.

Stupid things occupy my mind.


7:46 AM, May 17, 2005  
Blogger Lee H. said...

That would be the funniest ringtone ever. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize you had called!"

But yeah, you are right... it's almost impossible to alter that piece and have it be the same "song." It's more a performance, isn't it? I think a pianist is supposed to actually sit at the piano, not playing.

9:13 AM, May 17, 2005  
Blogger CatsFive said...

Good God... what a thought... and if you called that person up they'd still be on hold with YOU, leaving a message.

I make calls for a LIVING right now and I just would NOT want to "wait for the beep" on John Cage's voicemail!

Actually, I would appreciate a ringtone that just sounded like a few wooden knocks from the inside of a piano. That'd be a Cage ringtone.

9:23 AM, May 17, 2005  

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