I’ll be speaking at RailsConf 2009 this year on music and software development (Five musical patterns for programmers). The basic premise is that software development and music actually have quite a bit in common. This may be surprising to some people, who see programming as a cold, rational left-brain sort of thing, like science. But we programmers know that this is not really the case at all.
So as a prelude to my talk, I decided to interview two programmer-musicians on the subject: Chad Fowler and Dave Thomas. Both compose and perform music, and both are noted programmers. Here is the interview.
Rail Spikes: Tell us a little about your background with both programming and music.
Chad Fowler: I started my professional life as a saxophonist in Memphis. I played the Beale street clubs and all the typical Memphis professional musician stuff. Among others, I played for a while with Ann Peebles and her husband Don Bryant with the rhythm section from all the old Hi Records recordings. I did mostly R&B and jazz professionally but I was probably most well known in the Memphis community for making “strange” music. Before playing music professionally, I played guitar in punk bands in high school. I was a fan of punk, heavy metal, hip hop, pop, (new) classical and pretty much everything else. As I immersed myself in the world of jazz, it became quickly clear that the jazz community doesn’t like punk and other less “serious” types of music and has an almost religious negative reaction to jazz musicians who do.
It was almost as if any deviation from the “normal” world of jazz made you a traitor. So I did the natural thing: started a group called The Jazz Traitors, which played music that 1) we loved and 2) offended the jazz community (not necessarily in that order).
I was also very interested in composing “classical” music. I studied with a composer named Kamran Ince, who is still my favorite such composer.
As for programming, I’ve been interested in programming since I was a young child using my commodore 64. I wasn’t really that good at it as a kid but I played around a lot. I didn’t get serious until I picked up programming again as a hobby while I was a professional musician. After a late night gig at a bar, it was relaxing to go home and unwind to some C programming tutorials. I didn’t have a need to program, nor did I have a project in mind (except that I have always loved video games and wanted to learn how they worked). But I got so into it, that I ended up getting a job in computer support because a friend filled out an application for me.
Being the gamer I am, as soon as I started in computer support, I naturally wanted to “level up”. That meant becoming a network administrator. Then a system administrator. Then a programmer, then a designer, then an architect, then a CTO, etc. Now here I am. It’s been fun.
Dave Thomas: There was always a lot of music in our house. My father liked to play the piano and the organ (I learned to solder as he built a Heathkit organ from a kit in the late 60s). My mother liked Broadway musicals. So we’d often experience alternating hours of Chopin and South Pacific. My brother was also musical. I wasn’t particularly, but I enjoyed noodling on the piano, and spent hours just playing with chords and progressions.
I’ve been programming since I was 15 or so.
Rail Spikes: Some developers – yourself included – have suggested a similarity between programming and music composition or performance. How exactly are music and programming similar?
Dave Thomas: I’m not sure, but I think it might be something to do with the discovery of patterns. Both music and code consist of nested sets of variations and repetitions. There’s a rythm to executing code, in the same way there’s a rythm to music. It is never exact, but it’s there. After a while, I found I could imagine the rythm and structure of my programs as they run, in the same way you can pick apart the structure of a piece of music as you listen to it. And, jsut as with music, it takes experience to be able to feel the deeper structures and notice the more extreme variations. But being able to spot them in programs makes coding simpler and more interesting. The basic coding structures—loops, method calls, and so on—provide the framework for composing in the same way that staff and bar lines do for music. Algorithms are like the progressions, and data becomes the notes. And in the same way that good music takes all these things and then surprises you, good code does the same thing. It isn’t mechanical and repetitive: instead it uses the constraints to build something bigger and more interesting.
Chad Fowler: It’s hard for me to put my finger on. There’s something similar in the way I think when I do each.
I think it all boils down to language, though. In all of these cases (including learning actual language), you take a bunch of tokens (notes, sounds, grunts, functions, classes) and combine them into a grammar which you use to express ideas. The way you do that is totally up to you as long as the intended ideas are communicated. With computer programs, they have to do what they’re meant to do. With music, they express or evoke emotions, paint pictures, cause anxiety or whatever.
Some computer programs evoke emotions and cause anxiety as well.
Rail Spikes: Is Ruby development more like improvised jazz or composed classical music?
Chad Fowler: I think it’s both. And I don’t think Ruby is any different in this than other languages. Much of the discussion about the relationship between programming and music focuses on the more obvious idea of programming as composition. It makes sense, since programmers tend to sit and type their ideas into an editor and then eventually execute it. The programs can be checked, tested, refactored, etc. before the actual performance. This is how classical composition works as well.
But the less obvious angle is that in many situations, programming is like performance. In fact, even in music, improvisation is really just real time composition. You don’t get a chance to refactor because your “code” is executed as you write it.
I’ve had this same feeling while debugging production problems, hacking new features on a tight deadline, or sometimes during the initial creation of an application. The same synapses are firing as when I was trying to play Cherokee at 200 beats per minute. Mistakes can’t be erased, so they have to be nuanced into (worst case) insignificant events or (best case) important drivers behind the work.
From a purely development-oriented perspective, TDD is more like improvisation than composition. I think that’s what I like about it. It’s motivating and creative in an exciting, time-sensitive way. You take small steps and see where they lead you. Sure, you can always revert your changes if you paint yourself into a corner but part of the fun and challenge is to not paint yourself into a corner.
One thing jazz musicians like to say is that every wrong note is just a half step away from a right note. TDD is like that. You might take a slightly wrong turn. It’s fun to see if you can course-correct without starting over.
Rail Spikes: Do developers need to be musically inclined? Does it help?
Chad Fowler: Obviously not. Some of the best programmers I know are not musicians. I can’t tell if it helps, but I would guess that developers who are also musicians are different than developers who aren’t. I don’t think that’s because being a musician changes people, though. I think it’s because the people who are both are the kind of people who need to do both.
This usually means they’re “right brain” people. This leads to a way of thinking that changes how they approach programming problems.
I think learning music (or another right brain discipline) is a good way to exercise your mind. So I wouldn’t be surprised if leaning music helps people exercise their thought processes in ways that will benefit their work as programmers (or authors, or lawyers, or doctors or whatever).
I also think, though, that if we were all musicians at heart, we wouldn’t get much done. I rely heavily on my less artsy colleagues to ground me and be sometimes more pragmatic than I am. So I don’t think we all need to be a “right brain” programmer. It would be disasterous if we were.
Dave Thomas: Do they need to be? No. But many of the good ones I know are. I’d guess that density of musicians in software development is many times the population norm. But that means you could also ask the question “Do musicians have to know software development?”
I think the more interesting question is to ask “how can people best express what they enjoy doing?” because both music and software development are outlets for this.
Rail Spikes: What sort of music do you listen to? Any recommendations for Ruby developers looking to expand their musical horizons?
Chad Fowler: As I mentioned earlier, I like all kinds of music (with a few exceptions). Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of instrumental hip hop, such as DJ Qbert and Mixmaster Mike. I’ve also been getting into a genre of electronic music called “electro”, which sounds like the bleeps and bloops that are the soundtrack of my dreams (if a computer is going to generate music I always like it to sound like a computer generated it).
As for recommendations, here are a few ideas for things that most developers probably haven’t listened to:
- Kamran Ince – He was my composition teacher and, I think, an accessible introduction to the world of “new music”, which is what we call new composed “classical” music. The term “classical” is a widely spread misnomer. It actually refers to music written in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but most people use it to mean high brow music written for instruments like violins. So whatever you call it, Kamran Ince writes some beautiful instances of it. Specifically check out his chamber music, such as Domes and Arches.
- Charlie Wood – I have had the pleasure of playing with Charlie on a few occasions. He is a R&B singer/organist/composer from Memphis and writes some of the most intelligent songs you’ll hear. My favorite album of his is “Who I Am”.
- John Zorn – Zorn has been around for a long time and is a leader in the world of Avant Garde music. He’s also one of the most amazing saxophonists ever. If you’re new to this kind of thing, his Masada quartet (“radical Jewish music”) produces some great stuff that’s accessible to first time listeners. If you’re looking for something to shock your aural taste buds, try Painkiller (metal-tinged noise) or Naked City.
Dave Thomas: I listen to just about anything that’s interesting. My playlist here is very varied, and I try to add new stuff to it farily regularly. I know people who are trained as musicians, and I tend to ask them what they’re listening to. Sometimes that leads to challenges: my ear isn’t as developed as their ears. But often it leads to whole new areas of cool stuff. So I’d recommend everyone should find a friend who knows more than you do about music and ask them to surprise and challenge you. (That advice probably applies to just about everything, thinking about it.) It’s easy to find music that stimulates your lizard brain. Get into the habit of looking for the stuff that engages at a higher level too. And, like everything, have fun with it.