From the comfort zone: Digital barbarian

From the comfort zone: Digital barbarian

The modern harmonica of ten holes and two metal reed plates was invented by an European named Richter around 1825.

You hear many instruments in a song, but those musicians may never have known one another.
You hear many instruments in a song, but those musicians may never have known one another.

Acoustic sound in music is incomparable. I love it. It’s uncluttered by electric or electronic technology, or by overproduction that excessively uses audio effects. I’ve always liked the harmonica — the smallest and simplest of free reed instruments — because it’s acoustic. Of course I’m keen on Western modern music too, including hard rock.

What fascinates me in Western music is their outstanding, scientific method of harmonisation. Europeans invented harmonisation where multiple instruments play a given music piece in different scales, but the musical output convergence is one. The harmonica or mouth organ’s advantage over all instruments is that it’s extremely expressive; you can dramatically alter each note’s tone and pitch to create musical magic by blowing and drawing.

When the harmonica is the solo musical device in a symphony orchestra, it looks quite incongruous to audiences. The conductor’s orchestration of larger instruments like violins, double bass, saxophones all hang on the lead music emanating from the little mouth organ that’s mostly not visible in the closed palm of the player. The harmonica’s beginnings go back to Sheng, a Chinese instrument made of bamboo reeds, invented a few thousand years ago. Sheng came to Europe in the late 18th century. Instrument maker Christian Buschmann created Aura, a similar instrument with metal reeds.

The modern harmonica of ten holes and two metal reed plates was invented by an European named Richter around 1825. Germany’s Hohner first started mass producing it and continues to be the leader. After Matthias Hohner introduced 19th century America to the harmonica, its popularity rose. Being cheap and easy to carry, it became perfect for black slaves, whose uninhibited spiritual music is the root of American popular music and the blues genre.


I was watching an interview with Charlie McCoy, one of my favourites, and among America’s pioneering blues harmonica players from Nashville’s ‘Music City’, Tennessee. He’s accompanied Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon, among others. Explaining the 1960s when mono or stereo recordings were done, he said all musicians had to unfailingly practice for these one-shot recordings. Musicians had to be more meticulous and precise for recordings than stage performances. If one among multiple musicians makes a mistake on stage, others can correct it. But a recording does not tolerate errors because a disc is cut for permanency. Any mistake, the recording had to restart. McCoy said the thrill of displaying your ability to harmonise with other instruments in a musical session is what he misses in today’s digital era.

Everything is recorded separately nowadays. You hear many instruments in a song, but those musicians may never have known one another. Say a saxophone player is hired; he’ll come alone to play just his part in the playback musical track. It’s also possible that an intelligent music programmer will say to the producer, ‘why do you need the saxophone player? My digital keyboard has everything; I can play whatever musical instrument you need, so you don’t need any musician to make your recording’. The danger of course is that we are going to lose out on the knowhow. Suppose there are no saxophone players that the new generation can look up to because it’s all programmed, how are new musicians going to learn? When the big studios and great sound engineers retire, will the knowledge have been passed?

In today’s clinical way of recording, the live, unplanned, theatrical musical effect that emerges extempore when musicians play together can never happen. We’ve lost that on-the-spot musical drama that inspired or provoked musicians create. Digital technology has barbarously killed the emotion of musicians in a recording studio. In fact, digitisation is the barbarian responsible for killing many musical careers. Individual players of specialised instruments like the trumpet, drums, different types of percussion, piano, organ, harp, violin, bass guitar among others have had to put aside their competencies to pursue other jobs. But digi-tech has had the exact opposite effect on sound engineering. The clarity of sound output, its blending and mix have become extremely powerful and without parallel to earlier times.

You may think I’m writing with an archaic attitude, pouring cold water on the invaluable invention of digital technology without which the world will literally come to a standstill today. Actually, that’s not true. I’m the biggest admirer of the technology world, but my discomfort is in the digital knocking out the value and competence of human expertise. That’s an extremely dangerous trend for tomorrow’s creators and inventors in different domains. Musicians like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, among others, have deeply impacted many generations, but such commanding musicians have not appeared in the digi-tech era these last 20 years.

As a music lover, I love digi-tech for enabling us to enjoy all the world’s music on our mobile phones. But that’s exactly what’s killing individual musicians and the music world’s emotion that McCoy lamented about. Music producers no longer need to track musicians for recordings. Musical shows even cheat spectators when singers just make mouth movements of pre-recorded songs while dancing on stage with myriad effects.

Musical sound by itself was hallucinating to listen to, but songs can never be successful today without music videos. Here’s the musician’s plight: passionately build expertise, but that pays nothing. You upload your music free of cost on YouTube. You know the number of hits you get, but will never know if people really liked your music.

Hohner in Germany must be using highly advanced digital technology today to manufacture harmonicas. But I still see their new harmonica having the same acoustic style of 45 years ago. This illustrates that technology has not disturbed the individual musician’s interface with the harmonica and the acoustic sound it delivers. That’s how digi-tech should be, not more than a mere skeleton, definitely not the killer of creativity. We have to know how to perfectly exploit technology at the back end to make it a strong skeleton.

Shombit Sengupta is a global consultant on unique customer centricity strategy to execution excellence for top management. Reach him at