Sometimes when I access IRLP nodes, they have a very short melody telling you that you are connected; or when my local repeater's net begins, it does the famous doorbell 8-note sequence. What is the fine line of prohibited and allowed with respect to music?

Is it that overtone usage, like a Sine-wave 6 tone melody, is allowed, but if a piano is used, it would be prohibited?

Or is it the length, like a 2-second little access melody, is allowed, but it can't go on forever?

Or is it what we define as common music, like a 3 minute song, would be prohibited, but random sequences of sine waves for a few seconds would be allowed?

DTMF in a sense could be avant-garde music from John Cage or Karlheinz Stockhausen, who loved the sounds on his shortwave radio and incorporated all of the unique sounds he heard in his music.

So what breaks the barrier for the FCC rules on music or other non-voice audio transmissions?

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    $\begingroup$ I've always thought some digital modes sounds very musical... $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Oct 26 '13 at 1:40
  • $\begingroup$ 1. I was talking to my son on 2 meters, and he said he could hear my radio in the back ground and this is prohibited. 2. Also, one chatter stated that music could be rebroadcasted FROM the space station. I was told we could broadcast music TO the station. Please comment... thank you $\endgroup$ – Curtis Runkles Oct 14 '20 at 15:14

FCC 97.113 states that the following is prohibited:

(4) Music using a phone emission except as specifically provided elsewhere in this section; communications intended to facilitate a criminal act; messages encoded for the purpose of obscuring their meaning, except as otherwise provided herein; obscene or indecent words or language; or false or deceptive messages, signals or identification.

Looking around, the best I could find is that this rule is intended to prevent general purpose broadcasting, specifically with the purpose to entertain.

From this website, there is an interesting quote on music. I wouldn't take this as law, but it is worth considering:

Similarly, the transmission of music is also prohibited (with one exception: music incidental to an authorized retransmission of communications from the Space Shuttle is permitted). However, there is reportedly a ruling that one ham singing "Happy Birthday" on the air to another ham does not count as the "transmission of music", presumably because most hams seem to be unable to sing. Again, this is a non-compete regulation; if you want to transmit music the FCC wants you to use the broadcast service or a low power service to accomplish your purpose, not amateur radio. If your interest in radio is to be an on-air DJ, again, amateur radio might not be for you, and you should consider looking elsewhere.

Bottom line, if something that is purely incidental to the conversation, or if you are transmitting it digitally, you can actually have a bit of music and not get your hand slapped by the FCC. Thus, the doorbell seems fine, and most likely the types of "Windows Sounds" that sometimes come up, but personally, I wouldn't risk it. If you are trying to broadcast then you are almost certainly in violation of the law.

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    $\begingroup$ So this means I am allowed to sing happy birthday? $\endgroup$ – Skyler 440 Nov 1 '13 at 1:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Skyler440: At least, the FCC turns a blind eye to it. Don't quote me though! $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Nov 1 '13 at 2:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Skyler440 Another problem is that song is copyrighted... "In 2008, Warner collected about \$5,000 per day (\$2 million per year) in royalties for the song (happy birthday to you)" Wikipedia: Happy Birthday to You $\endgroup$ – Paul Dec 22 '14 at 10:56
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    $\begingroup$ The song is NOT copyrighted. Warner was sued in 2013 by an independent filmmaker who balked at paying fifteen hundred dollars for use of seventeen seconds of a song for which Warner may have never actually owned the copyright. In 2016 Warner/Chappell settled for 14 million dollars to be repaid to the licensees and to admit the song is "public domain". $\endgroup$ – Upnorth Oct 27 '17 at 5:04
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    $\begingroup$ There is reportedly a ruling that one ham singing "Happy Birthday" on the air to another ham does not count as the "transmission of music" No source is given in the linked article, so {{citation needed}}, is it true, or just a urban legend? $\endgroup$ – 比尔盖子 Sep 25 '20 at 1:42

Complete rules are here http://www.arrl.org/files/file/Regulatory/Part%2097%20-%2004-28-2011.pdf

MY understanding of it is "transmissions that are intended to be one-way", i.e., broadcasting. Singing "Happy Birthday" to another ham operator would be directed at that other ham, not the general public or anyone in range of the transmitter. That said, I am not sure what is meant by "music from a phone emission", unless that is a roundabout way of saying that you can't put your microphone up to your Walkman playing Bon Jovi, but you yourself could sing provided its not intended to be one way to a general audience. One thing I remember from my exam study was that if you are making a phone call through an autopatch and you get put on hold and it has the "on hold music" that you have to disconnect the call; even though you yourself are not playing music, you're still allowing it (incidentally) to be transmitted.

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    $\begingroup$ The link to "Part 97 - 04-28-2011.pdf" is broken -- the ARRL says here, "For the most updated Part 97 content, please visit: www.ecfr.gov" and that "A PDF of Part 97 is available here." and "A copy of Part 97 maintained by the ARRL can be found here." $\endgroup$ – AndyP Sep 26 '20 at 23:44

The "plain meaning rule" applies. If the law doesn't define a word, the word has its everyday meaning. If an ordinary person would say that what you transmitted is music, then a judge would normally be required to agree. If you want to test the limits and argue before a judge that something isn't music, or that a particular interpretation would be "cruel or absurd" then you can, but generally speaking I wouldn't recommend it.


With a few exceptions, broadcasting in amateur frequencies is separately illegal. Transmissions should generally be intended to get a responding transmission, but it's probably a good benchmark that it's music if you play a tune with no expectation to get a response.

Amateur radio is for communication. If it's a series of tones intended to communicate a meaning, in other words, data modulation, a courtesy tone from a repeater, doorbell, etc., it's not music. But if your "doorbell" is 2 minutes long, there's something wrong.

If you are speaking while transmitting and there happens to be music playing faintly in the background, as long as that music is not your primary intended transmission, you are probably OK. However, loud music in the background makes your speech unintelligible, it's poor practice anyway, and you should fix that if possible. For instance, let's say I'm doing an ARES event at a parade, and I'm trying to relay a message, and a marching band goes by... it's gonna be difficult, but it's not illegal, as long as the intent is the speech, not the band.

The reasoning behind this rule is that the amateur radio bandwidth is a scarce resource, and individuals trying to communicate can't compete with commercial broadcasters transmitting music. So commercial, broadcast, and music are all illegal in amateur radio, to preserve the spectrum for our use.

A lot of the law here is about intent. If the intent is to communicate, it probably isn't music. If the intent is to entertain, it probably is music.


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