Elderly folk were not keen on fibre when it was first introduced. It turns out they didn’t like the lack of a dial tone. They complained that they couldn’t hear anything when they picked up a handset.

Modern Voice-over-IP (VoIP) phones don’t need a dial tone. The, excuse me, tone-deaf engineering types who first made these things didn’t think to include it.

If you picked up an early VoIP handset you would hear nothing at all. Not even crickets.

That problem has since been fixed. Phone-makers added a fake dial tone so customers could get that comforting sound.

It turns out all dial tones are, in effect, fake. It’s not the natural sound that you would hear if you picked up a telephone handset connected to the copper network.

About 100 years ago, telephone exchanges began sending dial tone signals to phones. The idea is it lets you know the exchange is working and waiting for you to make your call. Wait too long and the tone changes to an error signal, telling you to put it down and start again. Different countries, in some cases different phone networks, use different dial tones. Most use a single note, although some switch between two.

There was a time when the dial tone was the background music of everyday life. It featured as part of popular music. You could create a dial tone Spotify playlist.

Start with Blondie’s 1978 hit Hanging on the Telephone. From there you can add songs by The Jam, Electric Light Orchestra, 10cc, the Buzzcocks, Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode. They all had chart hits that included that distinctive dial-tone sound.

Penguin Cafe Orchestra, an avant garde pop-band, took this further. In Telephone and Rubber Band the dial tone sounds throughout almost the entire track. In effect, the dial tone is the tune.

The dial tone can be romantic. Musicians use the dial tone to indicate unrequited love: the object of the singer’s desires is not there to whisper sweet nothings to. Or perhaps the loved one isn’t answering because he or she is annoyed or may no longer want to be the object of desire. It’s a metaphor.

Perhaps it was romance the old folk missed when they couldn’t hear a VoIP phone dial tone.

The dial tone is used for another metaphor too. A scary one. An entire sub-genre of horror movies feature telephones, and, in most cases, a dial tone.

The tone can tell you that the person on the other end of the line met a gristly death. If a ringing phone is picked up only to play a dial tone, you know something bad will happen soon. Those old folks who can’t get a dial tone don't know how lucky they are.


Bill Bennett is a journalist and broadcaster. He has spent most of the last 30 years writing about technology and business. He edits The Download