updated 06:06 pm EST, Wed December 12, 2012
Apple used various sounds over years, latest from 1999
While musical notes themselves cannot be patented, a combination of notes and realization of them that form a distinct and recognizable sound can be -- and the US Patent and Trademark Office has now officially granted a registered trademark to Apple for the current (and in use since 1999) startup chime. The sound turns out to be a slightly flat G flat/F sharp combination, according to the trademark application Apple filed in June, as noted by Patently Apple.
The sound was created by Apple programmer Jim Reekes, who has created many of the chimes heard over the years. Musicians such as guitarist Stanley Jordan and producer Brian Eno have been involved in the creation of startup sounds, which they say are actually quite complex compositions despite their brevity -- because the companies creating them want the sound to evoke a number of emotions and mental images, while still being incredibly short. Eno, who described his Windows 95 startup as "a little jewel" that needed 84 drafts before it was accomplished, claimed that Microsoft had sent a list of "about 150" adjectives, ranging from "futuristic" and "optimistic" to "sexy." He was also limited to no more than 3.8 seconds. Mac startup chimes are generally much shorter still.
Stanley Jordan once told an interviewer that he spent a whole day in a studio before hitting on the chord that would become the signature sound of the Power Mac 6100 and other Mac models released in 1994 and 1995. Jordan, who popularized "tapping" notes directly from the fret as a guitar technique, used a 12-string acoustic guitar tuned in all-fourths to create the sound, which was used for around a year before reverting back to the previous Reekes composition.
In addition to its original function of letting users know that the audio system was working, startup chimes have also been used on Macs to indicate that RAM has been checked, and an off-key sound signifies that there is a issue preventing startup (such as lack of RAM or a hardware failure). The trademark is in the form of a "sensory mark" rather than a traditional trademark due to its musical nature.