Music and programming, why and how are they similar ?
Since I started learning to code, I have encountered the saying “Musicians made good programmers” many times. Without really knowing what to do with this adage, I have moved on from my career as a musician to a full-time programmer during the Covid-19 pandemic.
I have just recently celebrated my first coding-versary, celebrating the day I have traded my guitar fretboard and sweaty rehearsal rooms to coding on a daily basis leading to starting my role as a Junior Developer here at Azuki.
All along the way, I have kept this saying in my head, enough to give me the confidence to keep going in this new career. This resilience (that I have probably picked up from being a singer-songwriter for five years) gave me food for thought and I have been able to pin-point a few things that, I believe, can explain the correlation that exists between those two careers.
The first element I can extract from my thinking process is the concept of Abstraction that exists in both disciplines. Programming and music share similar traits when it comes to building something. For me, songs are composed of different blocks that create structures, such as verse, choruses, bridges. Those blocks are made of chords, licks and hooks that can be divided into notes that are parts of scales, modes etc. This process of breaking down a song, a symphony or any piece of music is inherent to any musician. That said, whilst being focused on those details, musicians never lose the great picture of what they’re doing in order to deliver a coherent (or un-coherent) piece of music.
Programmers work in the same way, they are building software, apps that can be broken down into products, features composed of loops, methods using arrays, hashes etc. . That empirical thinking seems to be a requirement for good programmers as they almost need to be able to see in the future before starting to build to keep their code maintainable and efficient.
A second element that is interesting to discuss here is the concept of translation. After all, music and programming are both languages that we have learned. When a client comes to us at Azuki, we make sure to translate their ideas into a viable technological product. Similarly, a musician or a composer creates a score for a songwriter or even a movie director to translate their own emotions and vision. In addition, our own vision enhances the final product. Recently we have been working on music-oriented products. My personal experience as a musician and Luke’s past as a trumpet player helps us to understand our clients’ needs better and, as a result, deliver a better product.
Even though the concept of “The Zone” is difficult to explain, it exists in both disciplines (and in many others as well) and is often illustrated in pop culture. From Jack Kerouac describing musicians having “The it” in On the road to Mark Zuckeberg being “wired” in The Social Network, Musicians and programmers seems to have easy access to that particular zone of the brain where they can fully focus on what they’re doing whilst being almost disconnected from the outside world.
When I play music, I rarely think about what I’m playing, especially whilst improvising, I’m just doing it ! my hands and my brain are doing different things, and it allows musicians to add an extra layer to their performance either with emotions, energy or whatever is coming.
Similar process happens whilst coding, once you access that zone, you’re in ! your hands are typing lines whilst your brain is thinking about the bigger picture of what you’re trying to do or focused on the problem you are trying to solve.
This concept exists in many other domains and is not limited to music and programming but I believe that the concept practice of accessing this zone makes it easier to reach and that can be tremendously beneficial if you’re trying to focus for a long time.
Learning & Practicing
Learning and moveover constant learning are key concepts in both disciplines as the variety of tools that exists is endless. With programming, there are a million different languages and frameworks you can learn but also different technologies that allow you to do a myriad of different things, all available for you to use. With music, they are instruments, styles, scales, DAW etc. and the learning curve is not always straightforward as you still have to go back to re-learn basics sometimes to understand new concepts.
Practice and repetition goes hand in hand to assimilate complex concepts and as I mentioned before in this article resilience & routines is the key to keep going.
Technology & music
This point is not really about why musicians can be good programmers but more leaning towards the final point of this article. Music, throughout history has always been closely linked to technology both in making music and consuming music (After all Spotify is a music tech company). Being a musician in the modern era probably means that you are already juggling with DAW, SVT’s, plugins but probably also Adobe programs, Social Media, algorithms. After all, If you’re a musician and you are reading this, you deal with technology all the time. So why not learn how it works closer to the machine ?
How can musicians benefit from programming ?
This section is probably the most personal to me. Have I felt that music helped me on my programming journey ? Yes definitely, for all the reasons I have mentioned in this article. Am I a good programmer because I’m a musician ? I don’t know, and there is probably no way I could tell but after the world got hit by COVID-19 I can definitely tell that programming has been a salute to my mental health. Musicians and artists in general should stop romanticizing the idea that a starving artist is a good and prolific artist. I’m often asked If I’m still going to do music “on the side” or If I gave up my dreams. The answer is more complicated than it seems. Making a living out of your passion is very hard and requires a lot of energy, sometimes at the expense of your mental health and your personal life. By learning how to code and working at Azuki, I have allowed myself to dissociate myself from the financial pressures that used to be a weight on my creativity. I have been able to enjoy life much more than before and whilst my creativity went through a rough patch during lockdown, it is coming back more than ever as I’m typing those lines. I have been able to make music for myself without any negative thoughts of not being good enough or not being able to pay rent. I have been able to create and enjoy myself which is something that I have not felt in a long time.
As the final words of this article, I would say that if you can use your musicians skills that you have been working on for so long and turn them into something new and find stability and comfort, it is going to tremendously help you in your creativity. On the other hand, if you are a programmer and you are looking for a new way to express yourself, why not pick up an instrument just like Daniel here at Azuki who is learning Ukulele with his son, turning his skills into a new and wholesome experience.
Get in touch if you’re looking to build an app and turn your creativity into a product.