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What is a Dial Tone?

By Phil Shepley
Updated May 16, 2024
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A dial tone is the signal that a person hears on a landline telephone before he dials a phone number. In most instances, the signal disappears once the first number is dialed. In most cases, cell phones do not have a dial tone.

This signal was widely established as telephone systems became automated, starting around 1947. Prior to that, a caller had to talk with a switchboard operator in order to connect with another party. When the operator was no longer necessary, many people assumed their phone wasn’t working because they heard no sound on the line. The tone was created so the caller knew that the phone was indeed connected and working before making the call.

At home or in an office, several phones can share the same telephone line. The use of the dial tone also eliminates confusion if one party picks up the phone and the line is being used elsewhere.

The early dial tone resembled a buzzing sound and was created by a motor driven machine. Today, the sound in North America is that of two interfering frequencies of 350 and 440 Hz (Hertz). These signals correspond to the concert pitches of “A” and “F” respectively. Most of Europe uses a single tone of 425 Hz.

The sound has also been adapted to let the telephone user know of voicemail or other calling features. This is done with a stuttered tone when the phone is picked up.

In general, cell phones do not use a dial tone. If the phone is off, then the user knows it is not in use since there is only one “line” per phone. The number can be dialed ahead of time, and the “send” button pressed. A recent incarnation of the cell phone, however, designed for older generations, uses this sound when the phone is opened.

Other common telephone tones include the disconnect tone that the telephone makes when the other party hangs up, the busy signal, and the loud tone that the phone makes when the receiver is off the hook. There are also several special information tones. These are the three-beep tones used by the phone company prior to the recorded messages that explain why the call did not go through.

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Discussion Comments

By Oceana — On May 25, 2012

I had issues with the phone at my desk when I first started my new job. It could connect to four separate lines, and I had to remember to punch the button underneath the line that wasn't lit up in order to get a dial tone.

The cord leading to my phone was a bit loose, and sometimes, it would lose contact with it. I would pick up the phone, and I wouldn't hear a dial tone on lines 1, 2, 3, or 4.

After the first time this happened, I figured out that all I had to do was jiggle the cord a little to make it work. Any time that I picked up the receiver and didn't get a dial tone, I knew that I needed to fix the connection.

By cloudel — On May 24, 2012

@honeybees – Yeah, that modem dial tone sounded so weird, though! It was like a dial tone for aliens.

It really did sound like my computer was trying to communicate with something in outer space once it had dialed the number. Sometimes, it would make this noise for a minute or two before connecting, and sometimes, the connection would not be made, and I would have to go through the whole process again.

After hearing this dial tone, the regular dial tone on the phone line sounded normal and comforting. I would pick up the receiver after hearing the modem dial tone just to hear something familiar and reassuring!

By seag47 — On May 24, 2012

@myharley – I remember party lines from when I was a little girl. They were so inconvenient!

If I picked up the phone to call one of my little friends and I heard no dial tone, then I knew that someone else who shared our line was using it. Often, the people would yell at me, because they could hear that someone had picked up.

So, the dial tone became a comforting sound to me. If I heard it, I knew that I wouldn't get yelled at and I could go ahead and call my friend.

By honeybees — On May 23, 2012

When I think of hearing this sound, I think of a modem dial tone that is used to connect to the internet.

When I first started getting online, I loved this sound because it meant I would soon be connected to the web and I could start surfing.

Now when I think about this sound, I remember how slow the internet connection was when I had to use this process.

We live in the country so had to use dial up to access the computer for a long time. We also didn't get good cell phone reception for many years.

Only in the last few years have we been able to make some of the changes that others have had for quite some time. We no longer have a land line phone in the house, and I haven't heard that dial tone sound for quite awhile.

By StarJo — On May 23, 2012

It makes sense that there is no dial tone on a cell phone. With mobile phones, you don't “pick up the receiver” before dialing. In fact, you generally don't even hit the call button first.

I always just start punching the phone number first. Then, when I have entered all the digits, I hit the call button. So, there is no chance for me to hear a dial tone.

What I do get sometimes is that annoying three-beep series that lets me know that either I forgot to dial the area code first or the number I'm trying to reach is disconnected. The beeps are really loud, and they irritate me.

By bagley79 — On May 22, 2012

It has been a slow transition for my mom to use a cell phone. She has never enjoyed talking on the phone, and she has never really embraced the idea of carrying a cell phone with her.

We have finally convinced her to keep one in the car so she will have a phone to use in case of an emergency when she is traveling.

One thing that has helped her make the transition to using a cell phone is the type of phone we found for her.

When we were able to find a very simple cell phone that had large keypads, a very simple design and a dial tone, she felt much better about it.

All she has to do is open the phone, wait to hear the dial tone, punch the number and push send. Without all of the extra features that were confusing her, she is more apt to use it.

There was also something about the sound of the dial tone on the cell phone that made it much more appealing to her.

By myharley — On May 21, 2012

@andee - Yes, I remember the days of using a switchboard operator. We had a party line when I was growing up, and could easily pick up the phone and listen in on other conversations.

The telephone tones you hear are so automatic, that I never stop and think about them. Most people who still have a land line phone also have call waiting.

It has been a long time since I have heard the busy signal tone on a phone. None of our adult kids even own a land line phone.

I wouldn't be surprised if our grand kids have never even heard what a dial tone sounds like.

By andee — On May 21, 2012

During all these years that I have been using a cell phone, I have never once thought about the fact that there is no dial tone.

Now that I think about the reasons why, it makes perfect sense.

We still have a land line phone, and I automatically wait to hear the dial tone before making a call.

If I pick up the phone and hear no dial tone, I immediately know there is problem with the line.

I know I am dating myself here, but I also remember the days before dial tone when we had to use a switchboard operator to make our phone calls.

It makes me wonder how many other changes I will see in the phone industry in the coming years.

By anon131582 — On Dec 02, 2010

The pitches used are A and F, but you have the frequencies of them backward. A=440Hz and F=350Hz.

By anon46433 — On Sep 25, 2009

Wow, now you can get dial tone on any cell phone, a first, and for me, as an international traveler, this new technology works from anywhere in the world to anywhere in the world for a fraction of traditional cellular calls.

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