The telephone company sends a ringing signal which is an AC waveform. Although the common frequency used in the United States is 20 HZ and in Europe is typically 25 Hz, it can be any frequency between 15 and 68 Hz.
The most classical telephone ringer circuit is a mechanical bell controlled by an electronic coil. The circut consists of the bell coil and a capacitor (usually 470 nF to 2 uF rated for 250V or more) in series with it. This circuit is connected in parallel to other telephone electronics. The capacitor in the circuit stops the DC in to pass through the bell coil, but it lets the ring voltage through easily. Because of mechanical nature of the ring circuit, it is very sensitive to the frequency of ring voltage and other than the resonance frequency of the bell system (usually around 20-25 Hz) do not generate satisfactory ring.
In computer modems the logical signal from ringing is needed instead of ringing tone. The ring circuit must pass the ring signal information to modem electronics and still provide electrical isolation between telephone line and modem electronics. This ring detection is usually done using one optoisolator circuit, which replaces the raditional ring circuit. The optoisolator output can be easily connected digital electronics, but the optoisolator input side needs more electronics: one capacitor for not letting DC to pass through optoisolator, one resistor to limit the cirrent passing through optoisolator LED and one reverse conencted diode in parallel with optoisolator LED to prevent negative voltages from damaging the LED. This is the basic ring detection circuit.
One modem schematic I have seen used quite special method for detecting ringing signals: It had a small capacitor in parallel with on-hook/off-hook control relay contacts. This capacitor let some small part of the sound and ring signals pass to the telephone transformer. In this way those ring signals can be detected as small signal pulses in transformer secondary (and this circuit can be also used for Caller ID signal detection). The capacitor was so small that the impedance seen from telephone line stays high enough not to disturb other equipments in the same telephone line when modem is no on-line.