You don’t have to spend too much time in a public place before you hear the iPhone’s default “tri-tone” alert — it’s everywhere, and everyone knows exactly what it means. But do you know where it came from? You might be surprised to hear that it wasn’t actually composed for the iPhone, but for a 1998 MP3 player for the Mac called SoundJam MP.
The name may sound familiar, because Apple purchased SoundJam MP and used its technology to build the first version of iTunes. But the iPhone’s “tri-tone” alert was composed about a year before that, and almost 10 years before the iPhone went on sale.
Back in 1999, one of SoundJam MP’s creators, Jeff Robbin, asked long-time Apple software engineer and hobbyist musician Kelly Jacklin to produce a sound that could alert a user when SoundJam MP had finished burning their CD. Jacklin took on that task, and he explains how he set about creating the alert in a post titled “The History of the ‘Boo-Dah-Ling’ Sound” on his blog:
I was looking for something “simple” that would grab the user’s attention. I thought a simple sequence of notes, played with a clean-sounding instrument, would cut through the clutter of noise in a home or office. So I had two tasks: pick an instrument, and pick a sequence of notes. Simple, right? Yeah, says you; everyone’s an armchair musician…
Jacklin recalls that he was interested in the sound of marimbas and kalimbas at the time, and after going through the built-in sounds on a SW1000XG sound card, he also became a fan of the harp, a koto and a pizzicato string sound — “that’s the sound a violinist makes when plucking the string, rather than bowing it,” Jacklin explains.
For the notes, I wanted a 3-note sequence, or perhaps 4 notes. I was going for simple, and didn’t have much time to devote to being creative, so no fancy timing here, just sequenced notes. I wanted a happy feel, so notes from the major scale, focussing on I, III, IV, V, and VIII (the octave).
Jacklin goes on to explain how he then used Macintosh Common Lisp to write “a quick-n-dirty Lisp program to permute the various combinations of notes from various sets I picked.”
Eventually, after playing around with the notes in MIDI, Jacklin settled on a tone that he named “158-marimba-aiff.” The tone was then integrated into SoundJam MP, which was bought by Apple the following year.
So imagine my surprise when the iPhone ships, and the default text message tone is… “158-marimba”, now going by the clever (and not actually accurate, from a music theory perspective) name “Tri-Tone”. Time goes by, and this sound becomes iconic, showing up in TV shows and movies, and becoming international short-hand.
Apple obviously liked Jacklin’s alert, because not only is it the iPhone’s default messaging tone — and quite possibly the most recognizable messaging tone in the world — but it’s also used for all kinds of alerts in OS X, including the one that alerts users to the end of a CD-burning session in iTunes.