Considering that we are being yelled at by electronic devices at a high rate, why don't we have dynamic, synthesized notification sounds in our electronic devices?

Our brains can pick up nuanced information from audio signals and we do it all the time, for navigation, communication and pleasure.

By means of good, generative sound design, it would technically be relatively trivial to use software synthesis to produce rich ringtone (and other signal) audio on the fly, which could convey meaningful information to a recipient.

I'm wondering why we don't see this more often?

Compared to visual signs, the way sounds are being used for symbolic communication seems somewhat primitive.

An average app/system has a shallow set of static sounds which lets you at best discern a handful of event types.

Sure, static rendered audio files are easier to distribute across platforms and are less taxing on the device resources. But modern devices have more than enough processing power for some intermittent near-realtime audio processing.

And of course, extracting information from sounds can fail in noisy environments, but visual fallbacks can help and it would be the job of a sound designer/programmer to produce resilient tones.

However, I believe that generative, contextual ringtones could be quite useful in a lot of ways.

Can you point out good examples of where such on-the-fly sounds are being used?

Why isn't this more mainstream?

  • 1
    "I believe that generative, contextual ringtones could be quite useful in a lot of ways." Can you give an example of one, I'm having trouble understanding what these dynamic ringtones are.
    – DasBeasto
    Jul 11, 2016 at 12:54
  • ok here's a really basic one: a navigation device which creates a 2-note melody when it's time to make a turn: high-low for a left turn, low-high for a right turn.
    – spinalwrap
    Jul 11, 2016 at 13:00
  • For messaging, separate distinct atoms of information could be combined into a sound. Such as: who sent the message, how urgent is it, even content could be encoded into something like a short melody.
    – spinalwrap
    Jul 11, 2016 at 13:07
  • on the high end, we do have synthesized speech (Siri) - which is generative audio, but its focus is on speech - It is literally reading things out loud to you. compare "turn left" to a synthesized "bip-bop". the latter is more abstract, which can have certain advantages over concrete speech.
    – spinalwrap
    Jul 11, 2016 at 13:11
  • 1
    Gotcha I understand now, I'll leave the answering for this to someone else but it's going to boil down to ease of understanding. How do you teach someone what many different abstract sounds mean?
    – DasBeasto
    Jul 11, 2016 at 13:13

1 Answer 1


Sonification is the general term for this, and has been a topic in HCI research for a long time. Your question brings up a lot of interrelated, complex issues, but in my opinion the basic question of "why don't you see this more" boils down to a combination of:

  • a general lack of UI designer familiarity/experience/training with sonification as a technique
  • a lack of robust tools to support the technique
  • limited audio capabilities of mobile devices (one, tiny speaker means only tone/pitch/volume can be varied - no spatial audio)
  • relatively few use cases that entail users 1) not being able to look at a screen and 2) being able to extract information out of an "audio icon" better than the spoken word.

The paper linked above has a much more detailed discussion of these and other issues, which I'd recommend as a better answer.

As for where you do see this (outside of research systems?), the Geiger counter is probably the canonical example, and I would argue cars piping in engine noise into the cabin would fall into this category as well.

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