The unlikely classical origins of Nokia’s famous ringtone earworm
14 June 2021, 17:47
The original Nokia tone manages to be both extremely irritating and poignantly nostalgic. But where did the cult tune come from, and who composed it?
The Nokia tune (also called ‘Grande Valse’) is a musical phrase from a piece of solo guitar music by Francisco Tárrega, called Gran Vals (1902).
Tárrega was a Spanish composer and guitarist of the Romantic period, and is often nicknamed ‘the father of classical guitar’.
In a bizarre twist of fate, four bars (specifically, bars 13 to 16) of his 1902 composition would go on to have a fame far beyond Tárrega and his Gran Vals: in the form of a cult classic ringtone.
But that isn’t the whole story.
Although the tune has always been credited to Tárrega, the Spanish composer had an inspiration of his own.
‘Grande Valse’, the name of the ringtone, is also the name of a piece of music by Frédéric Chopin. And there’s a moment in Chopin’s composition, around 1:33, that sounds remarkably like the Nokia startup theme.
Tárrega heard Chopin’s waltz, and reimagined it as a lovely guitar solo nearly 70 years later.
Little did the two composers know, their four-bar ditty would become the first identifiable musical ringtone on a mobile phone.
Why did Nokia choose the ‘Grande Valse’?
A big selling point for using Tárrega’s music was that the composer was long dead.
Nokia needed a soundbite free of expensive copyright complications, and European law makes music available to the public 70 years after the composer’s death. Tárrega, who died 84 years earlier, was the perfect choice.
Shaped by an English musician called Thomas Dolby, the ringtone was first heard in a Nokia 1011 advert in 1992. Seven years later, the ‘Grande Valse’ was renamed as the Nokia tune, and it quickly became Nokia’s flagship ringtone and the brand’s defining soundbite.
Pop artists have sampled it
In December 1999, Jimmy Cauty (formerly of The KLF) and Guy Pratt released ‘I Wanna 1-2-1 With You’, which heavily samples the theme. It was released as a contender for the UK Christmas No. 1, but only made it to No. 62.
Other covers include ‘Coconut Shell’, a song by Hong Kong singer Khalil Fong which features a segment of the Nokia tune played on the erhu, and Valse Irritation d’Après Nokia, a short piece by Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin which is based on the tune.
Nokia has released several different version over the years, from its first tinny, monophonic chime to a real tone piano version in 2004 and an extended guitar-based version in 2008.
In 2009, a report revealed that the tune is heard worldwide an estimated 1.8 billion times per day – which works out at around 20,000 times per second.