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Ap­ple’s exquisite mu­si­cal morsels worm their way into your ears

- By ALYSSA BARNA Spe­cial To The Wash­ing­ton Post Music · Tech Events · Tech · Apple Inc · iPhone · Nokia · Led Zeppelin · Britney Spears · Elizabeth II · Freddie Mercury · WWDC · iOS

At Ap­ple’s World­wide De­vel­op­ers Con­fer­ence on Mon­day, the tech gi­ant un­veiled an ar­ray of new fea­tures for its flag­ship prod­ucts, from screen-time man­age­ment tools to se­cu­rity en­hance­ments. But even with this churn, some of the com­pany’s of­fer­ings re­main con­stant. Per­haps most no­tably, its iPhone ring­tones are so per­va­sive and un­chang­ing that some have seeped into our cul­ture, even as they draw on long-stand­ing mu­si­cal tra­di­tions. That’s very much by de­sign: The com­po­si­tion of their rhythms and notes plays a large part in how they in­ter­rupt our lives.

Two of the most in­stantly rec­og­niz­able iOS ring­tones are “Marimba” and “Xy­lo­phone,” sounds that have be­come com­fort­able and fa­mil­iar. But as mu­sic the­ory demon­strates, sub­tle de­tails in the com­po­si­tion of these tunes all but de­mand that we cut them off by pick­ing up the phone. That’s partly be­cause they are fun­da­men­tally dis­rup­tive, in­tru­sively in­sist­ing on our at­ten­tion. Ul­ti­mately, the ef­fect may be key to Ap­ple’s cul­tural im­pact. With the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Nokia and it­snow-his­tor­i­cal ring­tone, no other com­pany has man­aged to make the sounds of its de­vices quite so cen­tral to its brand iden­tity.

Con­sider the ring­tone “Xy­lo­phone,” which con­sists of two lines – a cutesy melody on top sup­ported by a con­stant puls­ing layer un­der­neath that sus­tains your at­ten­tion. “Xy­lo­phone” is com­posed around the con­cept of syn­co­pa­tion – ac­cen­tu­at­ing weaker beats to mess with a rhythm a bit and make it more com­plex. Think: “Buh-buh-bummm, buh-buh-b-b-b-buh” in the up­per line, and “bum-bum-bum-bum-bum­bum-bum-bum” con­sis­tently in the lower line. These two lines may not seem to match up at first, but the melody fits awk­wardly with the sup­port­ing tones un­der­neath. The lower line fea­tures an­noy­ing puls­ing beats, while the melody ar­tic­u­lates beats that the se­cond line doesn’t hit. In the­o­ret­i­cal terms, we would say one line has isochronou­s rhythms – that is, they are evenly spaced and pat­terned. By con­trast, the line with the syn­co­pated melody uses non-isochronou­s rhythms. To­gether, these two pat­terns cre­ate a bar­rage that aims to un­set­tle the lis­tener. This is a tune that Ap­ple has stuck with pre­cisely be­cause we don’t want to lis­ten to it.

The “Marimba” ring­tone – which was the iPhone’s de­fault for many years – also has two lines, but they fit to­gether more har­mo­niously. Each one con­trib­utes in a more col­lab­o­ra­tive, less an­tag­o­nis­tic way to the mu­sic. The base is made up of lower pitches, while higher, ac­cented chords form the up­per line: “Buh-buhBUH-buh-buh-BUH-buh-buh-BUH-buh-buhBUH.” To­gether they pro­duce a rhyth­mic ef­fect that’s sim­i­lar to the pul­sat­ing line of the “Xy­lo­phone” tone.

Where “Xy­lo­phone” re­lies on syn­co­pa­tion, though, “Marimba” works through a re­lated com­po­si­tional el­e­ment known as hemi­ola. A hemi­ola is a spe­cific type of syn­co­pa­tion, fea­tur­ing three beats where you would in­tu­itively ex­pect two. It’s a fairly com­mon mu­si­cal tech­nique, one that’s been around for cen­turies, fea­tur­ing promi­nently in the work of 19th-cen­tury com­posers like Brahms, Schu­mann and Tchaikovsk­y. It also reg­u­larly crops up in pop­u­lar mu­sic – from the open­ing riff of Led Zep­pelin’s “Kash­mir” to the cho­rus of Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends.” In “Marimba,” the ac­cented up­per line cre­ates the hemi­ola with a group of three notes in syn­co­pa­tion against the groups of two. Fur­ther, the coun­ter­point of the two lines jumps dra­mat­i­cally in pitch range, with the up­per line us­ing higher pitches that stick out con­spic­u­ously be­cause of the ac­cents against the lower notes in the se­cond line.

Ef­fec­tive ring­tones of­ten cre­ate “ear­worms,” short mu­si­cal ex­cerpts that eas­ily stick in your head. Like “Marimba” and “Xy­lo­phone,” Queen’s “We Will Rock You” – one of the great ear­worms – has two re­peat­ing strands of mu­si­cal ac­tiv­ity: the stomp­ing and clap­ping line, fol­lowed by Fred­die Mer­cury’s declam­a­tory lyrics in a freer rhyth­mic pat­tern. It’s this com­bi­na­tion of brevity, re­peata­bil­ity and lay­ered com­plex­ity that makes both pop songs and ring­tones so sticky. “The catch­i­ness arises from the chun­ked and se­quen­tial na­ture of tunes; once they in­ter­est an ear, they play them­selves through to a point of rest,” mu­sic the­o­rist and cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist El­iz­a­beth Mar­gulis writes of ear­worms in “On Re­peat: How Mu­sic Plays the Mind.”

IPhone ring­tones fea­ture a par­tic­u­larly pro­nounced ver­sion of that con­struc­tion, last­ing no more than eight beats (two mea­sures of four), be­fore re­peat­ing: These are ear­worms that are for­ever eat­ing their own tails.

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