Chimes past: a swan song for the startup chime

Every Mac that I have ever started up has chimed. Those chimes have inevitably changed, from the rather tinny chord of the first ‘classic’ models, to the concert hall grandeur of late. For many models, the sound played at startup could warn the user of problems: a discordant arpeggio, or the sound of a car crash, told us that our Mac was seriously sick.

Startup chimes have sometimes become more than inconvenient. If you’ve run a classroom or lab with twenty or more Macs that have to be flashed up at the beginning of a session, you quickly learned the tricks to muffle what would otherwise be acoustic chaos. One of the neater ways of achieving this was to insert a blank jack into the headphone audio socket, which automatically bypassed the built-in speaker. Mischievous students discovered that they could ease the jack out before starting up, to annoy you and assert their claim of control.

The startup chime has also become embedded in some Mac procedures, particularly what used to be termed ‘zapping the PRAM’ (now more prosaically ‘resetting the NVRAM’): hold the Command, Option, P and R keys from startup until you hear a second chime, then release the keys.

I’m sure that someone, somewhere playing a musical instrument has used their Mac’s startup chime as a quick check of pitch; ever since the iMac G3 back in 1999, the chime has been a consistent F-sharp major chord, a useful point of reference.

Then, without so much as a mention, Apple killed the startup chime on 27 October 2016, with the launch of the MacBook Pro late 2016.

Read the new model’s documentation, and it doesn’t even warrant a footnote. It only came to light when a diligent MacFormat staffer was browsing Apple’s updated support articles, and noticed that the procedure for resetting the NVRAM had been revised to take into account this latest model of Mac. Not that the article even makes it clear that the new model doesn’t have a startup chime, and Apple’s corresponding article on the startup chime fails to mention that these latest Macs are mute.

The strange thing is that Apple didn’t need to remove the startup chime at all. For a long time, you’ve been able to control its volume, so if Apple felt that the chime should be a sound of the past, all it had to do was to mute it by default, and let the user choose otherwise should they wish. But no, there is no option in the new MacBook Pro: the chime has gone for good.

That unhelpful silence now blurs the distinction between starting up and waking up, and between MacBook Pro and iPad Pro. In a laptop, which many users tend to leave asleep rather than shutting down, this could be understandable. Should Apple ever release desktop Macs which lack a startup chime, it would seem even more enigmatic.

Many of Apple’s controversial changes have sound reasons. For me, loss of the startup chime is loss of useful information, and the snatching away of yet another feature comfort.