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When the chime drops: tracking the rise of the iPhone sample in music

When the chime drops: tracking the rise of the iPhone sample in music


Producers on using the iMessage notification chime and ringtones in their songs

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2017 The Governors Ball Music Festival - Day 2
Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images

About two minutes and 30 seconds into “Future,” the final track on Paramore’s 2013 self-titled album, you can hear it: a small chime that sounds like an iPhone notification. The same thing happens in Rihanna’s “Pose” at around 1:07: the sound of an iMessage being sent. And in Childish Gambino’s “Telegraph Ave” and Frank Ocean’s “Start”: an iMessage received.

Whether you like it or not, the iPhone’s SMS bleep and jittery ringtones have become as recognizable as the MGM lion’s roar or the 1-800-Mattress jingle. For Apple, these sounds are an immediate callback to the brand. For the producers who turn them into the backbone of a beat, they’re a way to anchor the song in a particular setting, or a way to poke fun at our obsession with our phones.

Childish Gambino and Frank Ocean’s use of the iMessage notification sound is minimal and muted; just another glitch in some white noise. In both cases, the sounds could just as well be coming from their back pockets. Both musicians are products of the internet, and their relationship to technology is frictionless: it’s something that’s always around, but in the background.

Some artists, on the other hand, have intentionally created friction, sculpting entire songs from iPhone sounds. These songs are excessive and weird, and they transform the iPhone into something less recognizable than it’s ever been before. The Japanese producer Qrion has a 2014 track called “iPhone Bubbling,” which she says is an homage to the thematically similar “MSN Bubbling Remix,” in which classic MSN sounds are molded into something resembling a song.

Using only iMessage noises and a drum beat, Qrion creates a ‘90s club track that somehow sounds like it could’ve existed before the iPhone did.

In his 2014 track “Gods,” Ryan Hemsworth uses the same iMessage sound as Qrion, but here it acts as a quick stutter, a buffer before the key change:

The style is so ubiquitous that countless amateurs have tried it, too. Jaydon Lewis, a 16-year-old from Cape Town, South Africa, has a track on his SoundCloud called “iphone ringtone (trap remix)” that uses the iPhone’s “Opening” ringtone as a beat. It’s just two months old, and has more than 225,000 plays.

Lewis told me he thinks the ringtone works well as a sample because it’s everywhere. “The ringtone is a part of most people’s daily [lives],” he wrote in an email. “I thought it was cool and fun to add my own twist to it.”

In a bit of meta-ringtone irony, Lewis says people have told him they’ve changed their own ringtone to his iPhone ringtone remix.

Nicki Iodice, a 27-year-old based in London, made a remix of the “Marimba” ringtone called “Marimba-ba-ba!!” The track shape-shifts the ringtone into a pop banger, using the iPhone as a kind of mini-synth.

Iodice posted the track to SoundCloud more than five years ago, and she says people are still listening to it. “Every now and then I forget that [the track] even exists and then I go back on my SoundCloud and see how many listens it’s got, and it’s got something like 14,000,” Iodice told me. “It kind of blew me away. I didn’t expect anyone to listen to it.”

It looks like the iPhone beat isn’t going away anytime soon. And as far as I can tell, there’s only one downside to it: ghost notifications.