By Brenda Goodman
Six minutes 39 seconds into the Richard Thompson song “Calvary Cross,” Mike
Pelusi, a music reviewer in Philadelphia, will almost invariably check his cell
Minka Wiltz, an actress in Atlanta, has tried to answer her phone to the
thrrrrup, thrrrrup, thrrrrup of a truck bouncing down a pothole-pocked street.
Others say they thought they heard phones ring while taking a shower, using a
blow-dryer or watching commercials. What they are hearing is a barely
discernible sound – perhaps chimes, a faint trill or an electronic bleat – that
they mistake for the ringtone of their cell phone, which isn't ringing. This
audio illusion – called phantom phone rings or, more whimsically, ringxiety or
fauxcellarm – has emerged as an Internet topic and has become a new reason for
people to either bemoan the techno-saturation of modern life or question their
Some sound experts believe that because cell phones have become a fifth limb for
many, people now live in a constant state of phone vigilance, and hearing sounds
that seem like a telephone's ring can send an expectant brain into action.
“My experience has been hearing just a few notes that are similar to my phone's
ring, my brain will fill in the rest,” said David Laramie, a doctoral student at
the Los Angeles campus of the California School of Professional Psychology, who
is writing his dissertation about the effect of cell phones on behavior.
He plans to send questionnaires this summer to learn when and how often phantom
rings happen and who is most likely to experience them. A few notes in the
background of a television commercial can fool him, he said. Other times the
culprit will be the sound effects in a song on the radio.
“Another place I hear it is running water, so I sometimes hear it while I'm
shaving,” Laramie said.
Phantom rings are a “psycho-acoustic phenomenon” related to the way the human
brain interprets sound, said Rob Nokes, president of Sound Dogs, a sound effects
company in California.
The ear gives unequal weights to certain frequencies, making it highly sensitive
to sounds from 1,000 to 6,000 hertz, scientists say. Babies cry in this range,
for example, and the familiar “brrring, brrring” ringtone hits this sweet spot,
too. (Simple ringtones are more likely to produce phantom rings than popular
music used as a ringtone.)
“Your brain is conditioned to respond to a phone ring just as it is to a baby
crying,” Nokes said.
Why people seem to be hearing phantom rings more often now is another question.
Answers range from the paranoid to the vast exposure of cell phones – there were
207 million wireless subscribers nationwide at the end of 2005, a nearly
sevenfold increase in a decade, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and
On blogs, some cell phone users wonder if an ominous agenda is at work when a
phantom ring is triggered by a television or radio broadcast. A writer posting
as Koan on forumgarden.com said that at first, songs played on the radio
triggered a phantom ring.
“Thing is, the high-pitched sounds, although a lot fainter, are still present
during announcements now,” Koan wrote. “What is this? Is it subliminal
advertising or something else?”
Peter Arnell, the chief creative officer of the Arnell Group in New York and a
force in marketing, said that theory might not be far off the mark. While he
said he has never been asked by a client to include sounds in an advertisement
that would mimic a ringing cell phone, he thinks the increasing use of
high-pitched, electronic tones is very much by design.
“People are using a sound trigger to control emotions,” Arnell said. “The most
controlling device in our life right now is a cell phone.”
He suggested that a sound trick that sent listeners hunting for their cell
phones might be especially effective for ads ending with a call to action. (An
example is a directive to “Call this toll-free number now!”)
“Hollywood has always known how to use sound to control emotions, right?” Arnell
continued. “But this is newer to advertising. Sound effects have become the big
deal on Madison Avenue.”
Michael Sweet, the creative director of Audio Brain, a sonic branding company in
New York that has done work for NBC and Verizon, also said that he had never
been asked to use a sound for the purpose of generating a phantom ring. But he
said he believes that the ear-brain trick isn't a mistake.
“I think it's definitely intentional,” Sweet said. “Do ad agencies know they're
getting your attention? Sure. Do they know it's because you're trying to answer
your phone to the TV? Not necessarily.”
Allen Henderson, who runs the blog AwfulCommercials.com, was bothered by a
Toyota ad showing a man dragging a heap of a car uphill as if it were a ball and
chain. The chain snaps and the man is free to drive a Toyota.
“Most of all,” Henderson wrote on his blog, “I hate this commercial for making
me check my phone every time it came on the air.”
Steve R. Chavez, creative director for Saatchi & Saatchi, the Los Angeles agency
that created the spot, “Ball and Chain,” seemed tickled when told of Henderson's
phantom ring experience.
“You know, it only took us 20 years to develop that,” Chavez said impishly. “I'm