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What is the Difference Between Ringtone and Ringback Tone?

Updated on July 16, 2011

Cellphones are a fashion must these days. If you don't have one plugged into your ear, then you're risking getting arrested for indecent exposure. Ringtones and ringback tones are something else. They're like listening to a radio station that quickly gets bored with its listeners. If you've ever been walking innocently along, then suddenly heard a burst of music that gets abruptly cut off to the sound of someone chattering, chances are you've heard somebody's mobile ringtone.

Ringtones can be intensely disappointing to innocent bystanders. I can't count the times I've found myself jiving to a song that's suddenly burst out--like the time I overheard Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells on someone's mobile--only to have its promise cut off abruptly. Seriously traumatic. I hear people talk about ringtones and ringback tones interchangeably, but they're not actually the same thing. Although I have a shameful secret--which you will hear about momentarily--I can assure you I do know the difference between ringtones and ringback tones.

Ringtones Vs. Ringback Tones

Most people have cellphones these days. If you're one, then chances are you have hours of fun fiddling with your options for ringtones, downloading ringtones or making custom ringtones. I have a family member who does this. He also switches cell phone carriers the way I switch socks...from VerizonWireless to T-Mobile to Sprint like a mobile-talking Olympic champion, or maybe just a connoisseur of cell phones. Because I don't call him nearly enough for his satisfaction on his mobile phone, I don't know if he switches ringback tones the same way, but I wouldn't be surprised.

Ringtones are the sounds the snazzy little cellphones make when they ring that not just the mobile owner, but everyone in the room, hears too, and glares at them about. (My theory? Ringtones are one of the reasons you can't keep your cell phones on everywhere. Oh, airplanes and hospitals are one thing. But where life and limb aren't under threat, people could probably live with a few brrrr-brrrrs. But a packed lecture hall discussing the physics of communications technology suddenly receiving an explosive 10-second rendition of Queen's Bicycle Race? That's not disruption, that's a flash mob.)

You can download ringtones to your cellphone. You can make your own. You can get them from whoever you've got a service contract with. Ringtones that are portions of real songs are actually truetones, versus the polyphonic ringtones, which are like the notes you heard on the old Name That Tune Show. You know - "Ba-ba-BA-BA-BA-ba-BA - now name that tune!" Ringtones are a $2 billion industry.

Ringback tones are kinda special. They're just for the person who calls you. When they call you, you know the ringtone you hear? Well, they hear regular ringing - unless you've chosen a personalized ringback tone for them to hear. You can totally decide who gets to hear the personalized ringback tones you set to fire on your mobile and who doesn't.

Ringbacks are also known as caller tunes and answer tones. Offers for free ringback tones abound on the Internet, but be wary; you can't get ringback tones downloaded to your phone, just ringtones. As far as I can gather, you get ringback tones only from your cell phone carrier.

Now for that little secret. Maybe you've guessed...? No, it's not that I don't have a cellphone. I actually have three. But I confess, it's only because three people have given me cell phones, in hopes that my mobile-ity would make me more sociable. I glance at them every so often when I happen to open the drawer where they lie, unused and forgotten. It's at the point that if I ever suddenly wanted to use them, I couldn't, because I'd have to read the entire user manual before I figure out what order to punch those buttons in. Besides, I think the prepaid minutes have expired.

Don't ask me how I can walk outside with my head held high in this world of cell phone accessorizing. Maybe it's those ringtones going off everywhere I step. I can enjoy the music, at least for a handful of precious seconds, so really...why bother?

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