Jewish World Review

Dial tones may become casualty with increased cellphone use | (KRT) Pick up the phone in your home, listen for a few seconds, and think about what a dial tone means to you.

It's an easy thing to take for granted. But this deceptively simple sound may figure far more into our lives than we realize. Think Y2K, and all of the warnings not to pick up the phone at midnight. Officials feared we would tangle the lines by rushing to check for a connection.

And how many movies have you seen where a character picks up the phone for help, hears no dial tone and panics? For good reason: The phone is fairly reliable, and its failure means something pretty bad has happened - an intruder has cut the lines; aliens have invaded. We've been cut off from the world, and the world from us.

Specifically, the dial tone is designed to let a caller know that the line is working and ready for a call. But indeed, one could argue that the comforting drone has taken on the role once filled by the town crier, assuring villagers that all is well.

"It has taken on a significance way beyond the significance that it was originally planned to have," said Diana Deutsch, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, who specializes in the perception of sound.

And it might be on its way out.

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According to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, there are 164 million wireless phone users in the United States. Of those, millions have done away with their traditional land lines. The switch became more inviting last year with new federal regulations that allow the transfer of home phone numbers to cellphones. Since cellphone connections aren't made until after dialing, no dial tone is needed.

The prospect of a dial-toneless world troubles Erica Robles. The 23-year-old, who researches human-computer interaction at Stanford University in California, said she is a rarity among people her age because she keeps a traditional phone in her home.

Studies show that machines create a sense of empathy when they respond in some way to their users, Robles said. To this end, she said, the dial tone does good work. We keep a pretty close relationship with our phones, and she fears a general malaise, or void in our collective psyche, should the empathetic hum be silenced.

"I think, at the subconscious level, there's a lot of emptiness when we use phone connections that don't give us feedback," Robles said. "But it's subconscious. People won't be thinking, `What's missing in my day?'"

What about the actual sound of the dial tone?

"I think it's a good sound, don't you?" Deutsch said. "The nature of it - I can't think any other sound I would want for it. I certainly wouldn't want noise or music."

Not that the dial tone is without its own inherent music.

It's actually a combination of two frequencies. This is important - as Leonard Bernstein 2noted, an isolated note is simply "floating in space." Paired with another, it takes on meaning and emotional resonance. In this case, the two frequencies form an approximate major third - a sound generally associated with contentment.

"It makes you feel well-balanced, and you're more ready to meet the world - `So go ahead and dial the number,'" said Patrick Thilmany, who builds stringed instruments and studies the therapeutic effects of music. A half-step away on the musical scale, and our phones would play for us a very different tune - a minor third. It's where blues music gets its bluesiness and a sound that evokes in the listener a certain inwardness, Thilmany said. And that defeats the whole purpose of being on the phone.

"Whether this is conscious on their part, I have no idea," Thilmany said. "They were more sophisticated at Bell Labs than one would give them credit for. Whether they were musicians, I don't know."

Of the tone's two frequencies, 350 hertz and 440 hertz, the former is just over an "F" note. The latter happens to be "Concert A" - the note an oboist plays to tune up the orchestra. (No easy task arriving at this, by the way. For centuries, the standard changed from year to year and place to place. In the 15th century, it tended to be much higher - the thinking was the higher the notes, the closer to God. But godliness took its toll on singers, and by the 1930s, 440 hertz had become more or less the accepted standard. But pockets of resistance still champion various other frequencies for various reasons)

A bit disappointingly, neither God nor singing ability factors into the dial tone's composition. The particular sound came about mainly because telecommunications equipment around the world can recognize it, said Lucent Technologies/Bell Labs spokesman Adam Grossberg. It was introduced in 1903 and became more prominent in the 1920s. It was one frequency then. The one we hear today was introduced in 1963, designed partly not to interfere with other frequencies in the Touch Tone system.

Regardless of its technical origins, Florida jazz musician Scott Routenberg said the dial tone has come to blend well with our world. Routenberg, who featured it in a composition on a recent CD, suggests the secret is its relative harmoniousness. "We're kind of naturally wired into consonant sounds," he said. "If you hear birds singing or other sounds in nature, they're consonant."

Deutsch hadn't thought much about it before, but once she did, she became increasingly impressed with its composition.

"I like the fact that it's a constant tone; if it were `beep-beep-beep,' that wouldn't be good," she said. "I could make the case that one reason it sounds good is because it is comfortably within the range of a female singing voice."

There's an international standard for dial tones, but the wide spectrum allows for variations around the world. For instance, Italy's dial tone is a single frequency. Charming though the sound may be, said Wesleyan University's Ron Kuivila, it can be jarring to anyone using the phone there for the first time.

The dial tone and other phone sounds intrigued Kuivila, who teaches experimental music, to the point where he created a sound sculpture from 40 telephones last year. To him, the U.S. dial tone represents the sound of a bygone monopolistic era - Ma Bell's soothing lullaby, assuring us that we're all part of the same connected community. And it's a nice sound, he said.

"I think they wanted to make it distinctive, something characteristic of the phone company."

To Robles, the sound is cleverly counterintuitive. Few would have chosen it, but now it's hard to imagine it sounding any different.

"There's something nice about it," she said. "But I don't think people will realize what they've lost until after it's gone."

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© 2004, The Hartford Courant Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services