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The Surprising Story Behind The iPhone's Iconic Text Message Sound

The Tri-Tone alert that ships as the default text message sound on every iPhone wasn’t originally written for Apple at all.

The Surprising Story Behind The iPhone's Iconic Text Message Sound

Unlike a good visual design, we don’t need to be paying attention to a sound for it to use its teeth to grab our brains by the scruff and give a good shake. Maybe nothing illustrates that point better than 158 Marimba, otherwise known as Tri-Tone, the default iPhone text message sound. No matter where you are—a movie theater, a baseball game, a Bar Mitzvah, or an orgy—if you were to suddenly play the Tri-Tone sound, people around will freeze up and make an instinctual grab for where they keep their iPhones.

Those three notes have become internationally synonymous with the very concept of text messaging. Incredibly, though, the Tri-Tone sound wasn’t actually designed to have anything to do with messaging at all. Over on his blog, sound designer Kelly Jacklin explains how he originally came up with the Tri-Tone alert. It’s a fascinating look into the design process behind one of the world’s most iconic sounds.

The story of Tri-Tone starts way back in 1999, when Jeff Robbin (who would go on to become VP of consumer applications at Apple) approached Jacklin about coming up with a sound for a new app for Mac they were working on called SoundJam MP. SoundJam MP was one of the very first MP3 players for Mac. It was also one of the first apps that could sync your media library to a digital media player, but at the time, MP3 players hadn’t yet hit it big. Most MP3s, in fact, were still shared by manually burning them to CD. What Robbin asked Jacklin to do was to come up with a sound that would play when a CD was finished burning in SoundJam MP.

Although skeptical of the app itself ("Who the hell would want a Mac version of WinAmp?" Jacklin thought to himself), he took on the project and got to work. "I was looking for something 'simple’ that would grab the user’s attention," writes Jacklin. "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." But what instruments were clean-sounding enough? At the time, Jacklin was interested in the sound of marimbas and kalimbas; to these, he also decided upon the harp, the koto, and the pizzicato sound that is made when a violinist plucks a string instead of bows across it.

"I didn’t have much time to be creative, so no fancy timing here, just sequenced notes," Jacklin says. Deciding a mournful dirge would be appropriate in this context only for the RIAA, Jacklin focused on notes from the major scale in order to make the finished progression sound happy. Then he coded up a script that automatically spit out a series of semi-random progressions on the instruments he had chosen and sat down to listen to the .aiff format files he had created. Here are some of the progressions Jacklin came up with:

"I liked the marimba sounds the best, and preferred the ascending sounds. I settled on 158-marimba.aiff as my favorite,' Jacklin writes. Pretty soon, SoundJam MP was playing 158 Marimba every time a CD full of MP3s was burned, and when Apple bought SoundJam MP in 2001 and turned it into iTunes 1.0 (promoting Robbin to iTunes Lead Software Developer in the process), the sound started shipping by default on millions of Macs.

But how did it come to iPhone? Jacklin says that although he was unsuccessfully courted by Tony Fadell, the so-called Father of the iPod and founder of Nest, he wasn’t involved in the creation of iPhone OS, working within Apple as part of the Pro Apps group instead. "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!" he writes.

It’s surprising indeed. Think about how odd the journey of this simple three-note progression actually is. It was created as a tiny jingle to play when you finished burning music, only to outlive the very practice of CD burning by re-creating itself as the most iconic sound of the device that drove the final nail in the coffin of CDs as a way to share and listen to music: the iPhone. Whew!

What a strange, telling journey for such a little sound, and proof positive that good design, no matter what the medium, often takes on a life of its own.

Read Jacklin’s full post here.