In 1997, your cell phone could make two kinds of sounds. It could “ring”—our anachronistic word for the electronic trill that phones produce when you receive a call—or it could play a single-line melody, like “Für Elise.”

If you’ve ever heard a cell phone bleep out Beethoven without the harmony, you’ll understand that this wasn’t much of a choice. At about this time, Nokia, the Finnish cell-phone company, introduced “smart messaging,” a protocol that allowed people to send text messages to one another over their phones, and Vesa-Matti Paananen, a Finnish computer programmer, realized that it would work equally well for transmitting bits of songs. Paananen developed software called Harmonium that enabled people to program their cell phones to make musically complex sequences—melodies with rudimentary harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment—that they could forward to friends using smart messaging.

Those familiar with Linux, the freely available, open-source operating system developed by Linus Torvalds, another Finnish programmer, will not be shocked to learn that Paananen, in a nationally consistent fit of altruism, put Harmonium on the Internet for anyone to download, thus passing up a shot at becoming a billionaire. Companies called aggregators, which collect and distribute digital content, capitalized on Paananen’s innovation, using his software to create what is today known as the polyphonic ringtone: a small packet of code that plays the phone as if it were a music box, producing a synthesized approximation of a song that often sounds less like the original it emulates than a gremlin making merry inside a video game. Recently, the polyphonic ringtone acquired a competitor. Called a master tone, or true tone, it is a compressed snippet of actual recorded song, and emanates from the cell-phone handset as if from a tiny radio.

Ringtones of either variety cost about two dollars and are typically no more than twenty-five seconds long. Nevertheless, according to Consect, a marketing and consulting firm in Manhattan, ringtones generated four billion dollars in sales around the world in 2004. The United States accounted for only three hundred million of these dollars, although Consect predicts that the figure will double this year. Fabrice Grinda, the C.E.O. of Zingy, a company in New York that sells ringtones and cell-phone games, told me that in parts of Asia ringtones now outsell some types of CDs. “In 2004, the Korean ringtone market was three hundred and fifty million dollars, while the CD market for singles was just two hundred and fifty million,” Grinda said.

But America is catching up. Anyone who watches MTV has probably seen ads for a company called, which sells polyphonic ringtones as well as cruder, monophonic versions for older handsets. For a small fee (about six dollars a month), you can buy ringtones from Jamster by entering numerical codes on your phone’s keypad. This method is popular in Europe and is generally faster than the standard American approach: using your phone’s Web browser to scroll through pages of song titles. Most companies allow you to sample a tone before you buy it, but not all ringtones are compatible with all cell phones, so don’t get too excited if your favorite band is offering ringtones on its Web site. The song snippets may work only on that old phone you gave away to your nephew.

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