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The World of Mobile Ring Tones

You may not be named Ludwig, Johann, or Jimmy, but you can still program your own cool tunes for your cell phone. Bob Reselman shows just how easy it is, using Java.
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Ring tones are a cool way to customize your cell phone. You can make your cell phone play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," or a tune of your own making. And you can use the cell phone emulator that ships with the Java Mobile Toolkit to test your creations.

In this article I'll show you how to make ring tones using Ring Tones Text Transfer Language (RTTTL). Then I'll show you how to use the emulator in the Java Wireless Toolkit (WTK) to listen to the ring tones that I demonstrate and those that you can make on your own. You don't need to know programming or music theory to understand this article. Knowing a little about musical keys and scales will make some points easier to comprehend. But for the foundation of RTTTL, I'll teach you all that you need to know. However, in order to operate the RTTTL Player that I made for this article, you will need to have the Java Wireless Toolkit installed on your computer. You can download it for free here.

Understanding RTTTL

Ring Tones Text Transfer Language is a simple text-based format that you use to create ring tones that can be uploaded into your cell phone via various cell phone uploading techniques. (The mechanics of wireless uploading are beyond the scope of this article. However, as I mentioned earlier, I will show you how to use the cell phone emulator in the WTK to listen to your RTTTL files.)

Just about all cell phone manufacturers support RTTTL. Your cell phone has the smarts to be able to decipher a melody written in an RTTTL text file and play it as a ring tone.

The RTTTL format is easy to learn and easy to use. Let's take a look at a simple well-known melody in standard musical notation: the main theme from the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (see Figure 1).

Figure 1Figure 1 The opening theme of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

Now, let's take a look at the same melody in RTTTL:


If none of this makes sense to you at this point, don't worry. We're going to address the particulars in a moment. The important thing to get from viewing the two examples above is a feel for how the same melody is represented in two different notational formats—notes on a traditional music staff and in RTTTL.

The RTTTL Format

An RTTTL file is made up of a single string, divided into three sections separated by colons (:). In the example below, I've color-coded the Beethoven's Fifth example for demonstration purposes.


  1. The first section (blue text) is the name of the RTTTL melody.

  2. The second section (aqua text) defines the default values for the file.

  3. The third section (green text) describes the melody.

The structure for the first section is straightforward and obeys a single rule: The name can have no more than 10 characters.

The second section is more complex. It describes the melody defaults. There are three categories of default values: duration, octave, and beat. The way that RTTTL handles these default categories is to define each category with a single character and then assign a value to that character. The second section of the color-coded example above shows the default values:

  • Duration is defined by the letter d.

  • Octave is defined by the letter o.

  • Beat is defined by the letter b.

To translate the default values above into lay terms, you might say something like this:

The default values for this melody are as follows. Unless otherwise specified, any note played will have a duration of quarter note, as indicated by the notation d=4. Unless otherwise indicated, any note identified will be played in the fifth octave, indicated by the notation o=5. The tempo for this melody (how fast it goes) will be 63 beats per minute, as indicated by the notation b=63.

Before we move on to the last section of the RTTTL string, the place where the actual melody is described, let's take moment to get a fuller understanding of the duration, octave, and beat defaults, both technologically and musically.


The length of a musical sound is what we refer to as the duration of the note. If musicians had a more scientific heritage, duration would be indicated as a length of time—play this note for a second, play that note for half a second, play another note for two seconds, for example. But exact time notation is not in the musician's legacy. Instead, to the befuddlement of every elementary school music student, musical duration is measured relative to other notes using a system of whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, and so on. In most instances, the quarter note is the single unit of measure, in which each quarter note receives one beat. Thus, if you were to count evenly, saying "1, 2, 3, 4," you would get a musical pattern that looks like Figure 2.

Figure 2Figure 2 A simple quarter-note pattern.

There are times when you might not want to play a note on a beat—just have silence. In musical terms, this is called a rest. For example, count "1, 2, 3, 4" evenly again. But this time, skip saying "2," and just pause when you get to that point: "1, <pause>, 3, 4." When you do this, you'll have a musical pattern that looks like Figure 3. Notice the symbol following the first quarter note. This is a quarter-note rest symbol. This means not to play any note for one beat. RTTTL handles rests as pauses and can be programmed accordingly. You'll learn how to program pauses in a later section.

Figure 3Figure 3 A simple quarter-note pattern with a quarter-note rest.

In RTTTL, you place a duration number before a pitch. For example, if you want to play the pitch A for a quarter note, you indicate this in RTTTL as follows:


If you want RTTTL to play the pitch E for a half note, you write this:


The following list shows the RTTTL duration values and their musical equivalents.

  • 1 generates a whole note. Figure 4 shows the musical symbol for the whole note.

  • Figure 4Figure 4 Whole note.

  • 2 generates a half note (see Figure 5).

  • Figure 5Figure 5 Half note.

  • 4 generates a quarter note (see Figure 6).

  • Figure 6Figure 6 Quarter note.

  • 8 generates an eighth note (see Figure 7).

  • Figure 7Figure 7 Eighth note.

  • 16 generates a sixteenth note (see Figure 8).

  • Figure 8Figure 8 Sixteenth note.

  • 32 generates a thirty-second note (see Figure 9).

  • Figure 9Figure 9 Thirty-second note.


Think of an octave as the region that a scale occupies in musical space. Figure 10 shows two scales on the musical staff. These two scales are the C Major scale, made famous in that well-known tune "Do-Re-Mi," from the musical The Sound of Music. Notice that the second scale repeats the first one, but an octave higher. If you were to sing "Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do" twice, continuing up the scale the second time, you would be moving through two octaves of musical space.

Figure 10Figure 10 Two scales occupy two octaves of musical space.

RTTTL supports four octaves, from the A below middle C, to four scales up. RTTTL refers to these octaves by the numbers 5-8. Figure 11 illustrates in musical terms the octaves supported by RTTTL.

Figure 11Figure 11 RTTTL supports playing melodies in four octaves.


Musically, the beat is measured on a per-minute basis. If a melody is assigned a "60 beats per minute" value, this means that the melody will get one beat each second. If you want the melody to go twice as fast, you increase the beat to 120. Figure 12 shows the musical notation for setting the quarter note to 60 beats per minute.

Figure 12Figure 12 Musicians use this notation to describe beat.

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