How do you know when a person owns a Nokia mobile phone? It’s when you hear the distinctive startup and ring tone that has been included in the Finnish mobile giant’s handsets since 1994.

While Nokia is currently hosting a competition to find a fresh new Nokia tune, we were curious about the background of the original.

Its True Origins

The Nokia tune, was originally called “Grande Valse” on Nokia phones, the same name given to a composition by Frederic Chopin. But Nokia’s theme has always been credited to a Spanish guitarist and composer Francisco Tárrega and his song from 1902, the almost identically  named, “Gran Valse”. Why?

Well the truth is Tárrega was Nokia’s inspiration but he didn’t compose the entire piece without inspiration of his own. In this case, it was a 3 second snippet from Chopin’s Grande Valse.

Proof? We thought you’d ask.

Grande Valse by Frederic Chopin

Now this is the original by Frederic Chopin which includes the snippet that Tárrega used and built out to create his own Gran Valse. Be warned, you’ll have to listen carefully to catch it. The phrase makes an appearance a number of times but we’ve highlighted this point at 2:55, have a listen (and replay if you don’t catch it the first time).

Nokia’s Startup Theme Tune

This is Nokia’s startup theme tune and I’ve included this first because it’s easier to spot the specific notes taken from Chopin’s Grande Valse:

Francisco Tárrega’s Gran Valse

Now this is Gran Valse by Francisco Tárrega. Tárrega added a clearly important element to the tune, the repetitive beginning melody before the notes heard above in Chopin’s piece.:

Nokia’s Primary Ringtone

And finally, this is the startup tone that we have come to love today. Nokia ended up using Tárrega’s version for its main ringtone but its startup tone is very similar to Chopin’s.

If you’re still missing it, there are a couple of reasons. The 2:55 mark for the piano piece is the clearer of the two that we’ve highlighted, but even so it sounds markedly different from the guitar piece. The difference comes down to the two being played on different instruments, in different fashions. The guitar is being played in a minor chord, whereas the piano piece is played naturally. Combine those two facts and you’ll have difficulty hearing the reference, but it’s most certainly there.

How did it become Nokia’s Ringtone?

Musician Thomas Dolby, who co-invented the ringtone synthesizer embedded in Nokia phones, told the BBC how Nokia came to choose the tone:

One night a marketing guy stuck his head around the door of the engineering department and thought he heard somebody playing tunes with a phone. In fact, the engineer said he was playing with the radio to get the most annoying frequency.

The marketing guy asked if he could make it play some tunes, so he knocked up half a dozen and they said they sounded great, so they decided to ship them. It turned out the lawyers then stepped in and said you can’t ship just a pop tune, there’s royalties to pay and clearances to get – unless the composer has been dead for 75 years or more.

So they asked if any of the tunes were made by any dead composers.

The one that became famous as the Nokia theme was actually composed over 150 years ago by an obscure waltz composer, and has since become the most successful jingle in history.

It is estimated that as of January 2010, the tune was heard worldwide an estimated 1.8 billion times per day, about 20,000 times per second – perhaps more so today.

The Competition to Find a New Anthem

The tone is so distinctive, Nokia is looking for members of the public to help compose the 2011 version of its ringtone, remixing the tone so that it has a fresh new sound for when it launches its new Windows Phone handsets. The winner stands to win $10,000 and the right to say they helped shape the future of the world’s most distinctive jingle.