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From Waltz To '90s Icon: The Unforgettable Life Of The Nokia Ringtone

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There was a time when cell phones were used to make calls and many of the calls were defined by this.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOKIA RINGTONE)

SIEGEL: The Nokia ringtone, it was introduced in 1994. Last Friday, Nokia - once the world's cell phone leader - sold its dwindling phone business to Microsoft for a lot of money, seven and a half billion dollars.

Until today, no one had said what becomes of that ringtone, a tune Nokia says is played about 20,000 times a second worldwide.

SACHA FRERE-JONES: I'm pretty sure it's the first ringtone I ever heard.

SIEGEL: Sasha Frere-Jones is pop critic for The New Yorker magazine and he's written about ringtones.

FRERE-JONES: Francisco Tarrega wrote this in 1902. It's a waltz in three. And the figure that we know comes about 15 seconds into the piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOKIA AD)

SIEGEL: The composition "Gran Vals" was first used by Nokia in 1992 in that commercial, its first-ever TV commercial for mobile phones. A couple of years later, it was adopted as a ringtone.

The New Yorker's Shasa Frere-Jones predicts it will serve a purpose in future TV shows and movies.

FRERE-JONES: This now will be a signifier for a phone in the '90s.

SIEGEL: And if you're feeling a little nostalgic for the '90s, Microsoft tells us the ringtone will continue to be an option on Nokia-branded devices.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GRAN VALS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.