The 1980s synthesiser pioneer Thomas Dolby is releasing his first album in two decades, but you might know him better by his other achievement – a revolution in mobile phone ringtones.
It is possibly the world’s best known mobile phone ringtone and, depending on your perspective, arguably its most annoying. But there is little doubting the success of Nokia’s famous musical logo, which is said to be heard globally nearly two billion times per day, about 20,000 times per second.
One man who helped bring the world the sonic phrase known simply as “the Nokia tune” is the British musician Thomas Dolby, best known for his synthesiser-based hits of the 1980s.
At the beginning of the 90s I was getting pretty jaded with the music business, so I went to Silicon Valley, which was very exciting, and for the first time computer companies were starting to take music seriously.”
Dolby set up a firm that created “polyphonic” virtual synthesisers – software that allowed computers to play musical notes and, importantly, to play more than one sound at the same time.
We probably would have gone up in smoke like most of those dot coms, were in not for the fact that the world’s largest phone manufacturer Nokia came along and licensed the synthesiser that we created.”
The musician says it means his software is contained in nearly three billion mobile phones around the world.
One of the first jobs Dolby did for the company was to work on an updated version of the Nokia tune ringtone.
The melody was already their jingle but the first polyphonic ringtone of it was made by my team.”
The company had taken the musical logo from a short phrase contained in a composition written in 1902 by the Spanish classical musician Francisco Tarrega. His work, Gran Vals, was available to use without the risk of infringing copyright because the composer had been dead for so long.
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Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.