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How the Iconic 'Tri-Tone' Message Alert Was Created

How the Iconic 'Tri-Tone' Message Alert Was Created

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The 'Tri-Tone' alert is found everywhere -- in iTunes, Desktops, iPhones and more. The default alert tone for messages in iPhone was never planned to be composed for any device, but instead was originally created for a 1998 MP3 player for Mac called SoundJam MP. SoundJam would later be bought by Apple and be transformed to iTunes.

When development of SoundJam MP was underway, Creator Jeff Robbin asked Kelly Jacklin, a long time Apple software engineer, to help create a sound alert to let users know when a CD was finished burning. Jacking was a hobbyist musician so he went to work, experimenting with different sounds and tones.

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...

I was really into the sound of marimbas and kalimbas at the time, so I thought I'd try both of those. I also went through bank (after bank) of sounds built into the SW1000XG, auditioning instrument sounds, and found three other instrument sounds that I liked: a harp, a koto (Japanese zither), and a pizzicato string sound (that's the sound a violinist makes when plucking the string, rather than bowing it).

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 wanted a simple sound with a happy vibe, which means many of the sounds he played around with were just three or four notes long -- focusing on notes from the major scale and I, III, IV, V, and VIII octaves.

Ultimately, Jacklin came up with a sound file called 158-marimba.aiff -- the Tri-Tone alert we know today. The sound was kept in the app when Apple transformed Soundjam MP into iTunes, and in 2007, when the iPhone was released, Jacklin was surprised to see the sound tone he created many years ago was the default text alert.

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 for "you have a text message"... Wow! Who'd have thought?

Today, you can hear the iconic Tri-Tone alert that was created for a small music player years ago in movies, TV shows, or anywhere in public. Below is an audio clip of all the different candidates that didn't make the cut.

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How the Iconic 'Tri-Tone' Message Alert Was Created