Why is there a system sound called Asterisk? What sound does an Asterisk make anyway?

Raymond Chen

A Twitter user who goes by the name ASwisstone asked why there is a system sound called Asterisk. Yup there it is: System.Media.System­Sounds.Asterisk. What sound does an Asterisk make anyway?

If you dig into the reference source, you’ll see that the SystemSound.Play method calls SafeNativeMethods.MessageBeep with the corresponding value MB_ICONASTERISK.

Okay, so this sound is intended to accompany an asterisk icon. But what is the asterisk icon?

The MB_ prefix may be a clue. These are values that you can pass to the MessageBox function to specify what icon should be shown in the message box, and the sound plays when a message box is shown with the corresponding icon.

The documentation says that MB_ICON­ASTERISK produces “An icon consisting of a lowercase letter i in a circle.”

Wait a second, that’s not an asterisk! It seems that each time we peel back a layer of the onion, the story just gets more confusing!

The story starts to become less murky when you notice that the MB_ICON­ASTERISK constant has the same numerical value (and same description) as the MB_ICON­INFORMATION constant.

Okay, now we can put the pieces of the story together.

Once upon a time, there was MB_ICON­ASTERISK, which presumably showed an asterisk icon. At some point, the asterisk was replaced with an information symbol 🛈 and an alternate name for the flag was invented: MB_ICON­INFORMATION.

To test this theory, I dug through the pcjs.org archive of old versions of Windows maintained by my retired colleague and doughnut enthusiast Jeff Parsons (Previously about Jeff.)

And lo and behold, we can see it in action: Fire up Windows 1.0, launch Notepad, and then hit Ctrl+F to call up the Search dialog. Search for some nonsense string and hit Enter.

The asterisk was also used in Windows 2.0 (see for yourself), but Windows 3.0 changed the icon to the information symbol. Nevertheless, the programmatic name remained “Asterisk”, for compatibility.

Bonus chatter: Mind you, Windows 1.0 didn’t have support for any sounds aside from the plain old beep from the built-in PC speaker. Multimedia sound support didn’t arrive until Windows 3.0.

Bonus chatter 2: At the same time that Asterisk became Information, the Hand was changed to a Stop sign.¹ The Exclamation didn’t want to be left out of the party, even though its icon didn’t change, but at least it was renamed to Warning.

¹ In Windows 95, the stop sign changed to a filled red circle with a white X.

3 comments

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  • Yuri Khan 0

    I remember an alternate UI components library, BWCC by Borland. Its Stop message box image actually featured a red hand.

  • Dave Gzorple 2

    There’s also an undocumented System.Media.System­Sounds.Obelisk, which plays a recording of someone saying “These Romans are crazy”.

  • Daniel White 0

    I always read that as “at risk” growing up.

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