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December 07, 2007

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Given my interest in music and innovation, I was intrigued by this Wall Street Journal piece on the introduction of new musical instruments, wrapped around the case of a curious new keyboard called "The Thummer."  The best part for me is the timeline of instrumental innovations, above. Anyone care to add to the list.


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Mike Linacre

Moog synthesizer 1964

Michael Wells

I'd throw in a couple:
Keyboard instruments, which can be wind (pipe organ, ancient), plucked (harpsichord, 14th century), hammered (piano, 18th century) or electronic (synthesizer, 20th).

Also the reintroduction of the drum into Western classical music in the 1800's. I think Micky Hart's great "Drumming at the Edge of Magic" talks about it.

By the way, have you seen Todd Haynes' Dylan film "I'm Not There"? It's a treat! You'd have to be obsessive to find all the references, but if you're between 50 and 65 you'll get enough. I don't know if it would make any sense at all to anyone else.


The Fender bass. The impact of that innovation is enormous.


Oh, and if you'd like to see a new innovation in this space, I just saw a fantastic finger-hammered string instrument at http://sevensthings.com

(This is not a shill spam -- I happened to catch a demo of this on boingboing.net and thought it looked and sounded like a winner. It reminded me of the way Jeff Healey plays guitar.)

Jim Plamondon

As an avid reader of your works -- hence my relocation to Austin -- I am honored by your comments on the Thummer.

However, if the Thummer were just another likely-to-fail new musical instrument, I would never have invested a dime in it. Instead, it's the tip of a revolutionary iceberg, based on a scientific breakthrough in the display and control of musical information.

In brief, Thumtronics' innovations (a) abstract the display of musical information to the level at which music theory operates (intervals), and (b) anchors that display in the concrete geometry of a specific isomorphic (generalized) keyboard. This combination of abstraction and anchoring is to music what the Periodic Table of the Elements and the Bohr Model of the Atom are to chemistry.

Just as the invention of the Periodic Table led to new discoveries in chemistry, so has the invention of the Thummer led to new discoveries in music. The first of these, "tuning invariance," is documented in cover article of the Winter 2007 edition of MIT Press' peer-reviewed Computer Music Journal.

Tuning invariance, coupled with the expressive power of the Thummer's thumb-operated joysticks and internal motion sensors, enables the expansion of the frameork of tonal harmony to include wide new frontiers for creative exploration. This expansion is accomplished through novel musical effects -- such as polyphonic tuning bends, new chord progressions, and temperament modulations -- that deliver entirely new musical possibilities, while retaining the simple diatonic structure demanded by the mainstream marketplace.

Best of all, these new effects are brain-dead simple to control. You just wiggle a joystick, and cool new effects happen. No music theory required. The geometry of the Thummer's keyboard "knows" music theory, so you don't have to.

In short, the Thummer is not just another curious new keyboard. It is part of a systematic effort to grow the market by increasing the rate at which novices gain the knowledge and skills needed for music-making.

Last but not least, should Thumtronics' innovations become proprietary to an operating system vendor, they give that vendor the opportunity to embrace and extend (aka de-commoditize) the core standards of the music products industry. Given those vendors' current struggles to dominate the "connected entertainment" marketplace, Thumtronics' innovations could offer such a vendor a strategic advantage.

Jim Plamondon
CEO, Thumtronics Inc
The New Shape of Music(tm)

If anyone was unclear about what I meant by a "shill spam" comment, we've just been provided with an example. I don't begrudge Mr. Plamondon of trying to make a living with this, but blog comments are not the correct place for P.R. releases.

Let's be clear about the Thummer. It is not an instrument in its own right, it is a controller. It makes no sounds on its own. It is a clever controller, but it is essentially a Janko keyboard, which was invented in 1882, with the addition of thumb controls. A welcome addition, but it's innovation the way it is supposed to be done, by building on the work of others. (That work should, however, be acknowledged.)

(See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janko_keyboard for details.)

The troubling thing is the last paragraph, with "embrace and extend" being extolled as a good thing. Isn't this attempting to prevent further innovation that build's on Mr. Plamondon's ideas? It certainly seems that way. As a musician, I'll be damned if I'm going to spend my time learning controls that I can only obtain from one company. Especially since there is no way that this approach is going to make the Thummer (tm) a mainstream instrument. Imagine if, instead, the controller was marketed as a standards-following USB MIDI instrument, one that I could plug into my Linux box and you could plug into your Mac. Which approach do you think will let Mr. Plamondon sell more instruments?

Note again Roger Linn's quote in the WSJ article. He calls the Thummer one of the "new little organisms in the Darwinism of musical instruments." By trying to make it proprietary, you prevent it from having offspring, and you know what that means in Darwinism.

Jim Plamondon

I appeciate the continuing interest shown in the Thummer on this thread.

To address the points made in the previous anonymous post:
1. The Thummer is indeed a generalized controller, which can control the sound of any MIDI-compatible synth. This flexibility is a feature; it seems odd to have it be positioned by the anonymous poster as a flaw. Future Thummers (such as the proposed Pocket Thummer) are expected to have integrated synthesizers, in order to provide the consumer market with a "complete solution," but the first Thummers are aimed at computer-savvy Music Brains, for whom MIDI controllers are well-understood.

2. The Thummer's note-layout (first patented by Kaspar Wicki in Switzerland in 1896, and subsequently by Brian Hayden in England in 1982) is not the same as Paul Janko's note-layout. There are many transpositionally-invariant note-layouts, of which only a handful are musically useful. A scientific paper (of which I am co-author) recently accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Journal of Mathematics and Music compares and contrasts various different transpositionally-invariant note-layouts for use under tuning invariance, and concludes that the Thummer's note-layout is optimal for this purpose.

3. The contributions of Janko, Wicki, and others are recognized as appropriately on Thumtronics' website and in the scientific articles to which Thumtronics has contributed. I did not consider this blog to be an appropriate forum for genealogies (as presented in item #3 above).

4. The anonymous poster mis-characterizes "embrace and extend" strategies as being incompatible with the status quo. The whole point of such strategies is that they DO retain backward compatibility with the status quo -- and then ALSO provide proprietary extensions which, to succeed, must offer such compelling value than those who use them can out-compete those who use only the staus quo technologies. So, for example, one would be able to use the Thummer with all existing MIDI devices, and get from them all of the benefits such devices currently offer. One could also choose to use the Thummer with synthesizers which implemented support for hypothetical proprietary extensions to MIDI, which offered functionality that no previous MIDI synthesizer offered. If this new functionality were sufficiently compelling, then musicians would choose to use synthesizers with the proprietary extensions over those without (that's what "compelling" means). For example, the benefits of pocket calculators vs. slide rules are compelling.

5. As to having the "embrace and extend" approach limiting the potential spread of the Thummer, the anonymous poster is missing the distinction between giving away a technology and giving away a product. If one controls a technology, then one can choose to give away products based on that technology, without losing control of the technology. For example, Thumtronics expects to give away online music education courseware based on a mapping of the Thummer's note-pattern to the QWERTY keyboard. This music education courseware, freely available on the web and using QWERTY keyboards that the user already owns, should make it trivially easy for anyone with a Net connection to learn the basic skills and concepts of creative music-making. Likewise, "embrace and extend" strategies to not preclude widespread licensing; they just give the licensor the power to exclude direct competitors from receiving such licenses. Darwin is entirely satisfied by such strategies.

It is entirely possible that I have misunderstood the anonymous poster, or that my responses contain mistaken assumptions or errors in fact, in which case I welcome correction by the esteemed readers of this blog.

Thanks! :-)

Jim Plamondon
CEO, Thumtronics Inc
The New Shape of Music(tm)
Austin, Texas

Jim P. -- thanks for the reply.

I'm really not anonymous. I posted my comment under my typepad.com ID of "bjimba". I don't know why typepad did not sign my post correctly. It did at the time of posting.

My name is Jim Russell, I live in Nutley NJ, and my personal blog is at bjimba.blogspot.com. If you want anything more, let me know. As you may know, you *can't* post anonymously here. The fact that it is displaying as anonymous was not my intention.

I'll address some of your points in another post -- it's awfully late now ( 2:45am EST). Suffice it to say that I'm very happy that you're willing to participate in the conversation.

Richard and all. This might be slightly off topic, but check out MihaVision.com, a performance violonist who uses creativity and music as a means to explain business processes and to spark creativity in business environments. Thanks for all the great posts.

Jim Russell

Okay, I promised to address Jim P.'s points, so let me do so. (Jim, thanks for the private email. Please take this commentary in the spirit in which it is offered. I see incredible potential with your controller, and really *want* you to succeed with it.)

1. I never said that the Thummer-as-controller was a flaw. The WSJ article kept blurring the distinction, and I wished to clarify. Example: Marc Rossi's quote (actually paraphrase) that the Thummer sounds like a good-quality synthesizer. Well, no it doesn't, unless it's connected to a good-quality synthesizer. I prefer your design decision -- separation of controller and sound generator allows for a lot of creativity. However, it is crucial that component systems follow standards, and *not* push proprietary extensions. Otherwise, it limits the musician's freedom in combining components.

2 and 3. I stand corrected, although it seems clear that Wicki was building on Janko's work. You may think it unimportant to show the history of uniform keyboards. I disagree. Your website clearly attempts to present the keyboard layout as one of your innovations. It is no sin to build on the work of others. Your innovation is in combining the concertina keyboard with the motion sensor and thumb controls. Take credit for that, but acknowledge your roots upfront, and don't bury them in appendices. Even Newton stood on the shoulders of giants.

4. Beware of "embrace and extend". This phrase is loaded with negative connotations, almost entirely from Microsoft's use of it. It sends cold shivers down my spine, and I'm not the only one. A strategy of "embrace and extend", at least in the way Microsoft did it, most certainly did *not* maintain the status quo, but merely lured one into believing it would, with the ultimate goal of making the "extensions" non-standard and proprietary, with the ultimate goal of coerced lock-in to a platform. I'm a professional programmer, and I lived through the horrors of "embrace and extend" technologies like Visual J++ and JScript. If pocket calculators were a single-vendor solution, I might give my slide rule another look.

5. Your description of widespread licensing sounds more like the way the U.S. Patent system is supposed to work, rather than "de-commoditization" you described in your first post. An innovation can either be proprietary, held close to the vest with trade secrets, or it can be patented, allowing the concepts of the innovation to be widely publicized, with the proviso that the inventor has exclusive licensing rights for a limited time. Patents were *not* intended, in my opinion, to allow exclusion of licensing to direct competitors. Steinberger had a patented design for bass guitars, yet Washburn was allowed to make them. (My Washburn bass using the Steinberger design is one of my favorite instruments.)

Thanks for hearing me out. I wish you the best of luck with the Thummer, and really hope that it succeeds. I also really hope that you will let me or some other programmer create an open-source driver for it, so that us Linux folks can help you grow.

Jim R.
Somewhere in the swamps of Jersey


Jim P and Jim R - wow. I am totally blown away. I am starting in my music, innovation and society project and I can really use help from both of you!

Jim Russell

Rich, I would be happy to help in any small way that I can. Like you, I have never quite abandoned my musical avocation. I haven't performed publicly since my band in the 1980s, and even then it was just the occasional Arlington Lounge gig. (Although I can say that I played on the CBGB stage, in our one NYC performance.)

Some of our old compatriots are still at it, though. A few weeks ago, I went to see a cover band featuring Gino Simonelli on lead guitar and Augie Foglio on bass.

Jim Plamondon

Regarding the Thummer's potential to resolve the century-long "crisis of tonality", see this blog posting.

Regarding the Thummer's potential to shift the center of the global music industry to Austin, see this blog posting.

ken rushton (MusicScienceGuy)

I've been following Jim P for quite some time, and have gone to the trouble of making a couple of imitation Thummers (Jammers is the general term). The Thummer opens up myriad possibilities - much to extensive too mention here - an single example is that the sharp and flat notes are split to separate sides, and thus can be better tuned. For more details of my findings as I work out, slowly but surely, the implications, theory and practice of jammers, see my blog.
Ken aka MusicScienceGuy.


Nice post!! I prefer to buy musical instruments from Musicians Friend store at reasonable price...

Robert Thomas

Guitar Center is my favorite store which provides all type of musical instruments at discounted prices....


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brass musical instruments

Music was such an important influence during my adolecent years. ithink all kids should learn to play at least one instrument.


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