Music vs. Programming

Last night I realized the biggest difference between programming and writing music. It is pretty obvious when you think about it. The difference is the audience. Both instances you are trying to communicate something. It is never easy and rarely does it work perfectly the first time. There is a ton of practice involved alongside a whole set of tools. Both have artistic aspects that always seem to be based on some mathematical concepts. But biggest difference is really the audience. On the programming side of things you have an emotionless set of components that epitomizes stupidity. Sure, you can make a computer seem smart, but really that hunk of silicon and connections is about as dumb as it gets. It is either on or off. As a programmer, your goal is to make that big hunk of simplicity do something interesting and/or useful. It is a huge challenge because you have to use language that is going to be read by other programmers. This means there is a secondary audience (think other folks in the band) who need to understand what the heck is going on. The biggest problem on all fronts is communication thanks to the horrible medium of 1s and 0s.

Music on the other hand is another extreme when it comes to audiences. The listener is the person you write for. Your goal is not to tell them what to do, but rather to relate to their emotions. In a way, you’re communicating how to actually feel! Likewise, you have a set of musicians or a band that you need to communicate how to communicate to the listener. If you’ve ever been in a studio where they are trying to get sounds you’ll quickly see the deconstruction of genre devolve into hand gestures accompanied by dancing and random vocal noises. Again, the problem is the medium of emotion that makes music such a horrible communication method.

Programming and music are at two edges of the spectrum of communication. When you are writing a song what you really are doing is communicating. Sometimes that communication is focused on those around you and other times it is meant for the masses. Likewise, when you program you write for millions of x86 processors as well as the other developers on your team. In both of these cases the language you are given provides a huge challenge.

Working in a team can be challenging enough, but it becomes even more difficult when the output is a really hard communication medium. What’s is interesting is that you do see similar arguments even though the medium of music and code are so different. One would assume that in the coding world data and facts would reign supreme, but programmers can often become emotional about implementation details. Likewise, in a band there are tons of times where emotions run high, but the vast majority of the time it’s simple repetition and counting parts or measures.

The thing to take away though is that at the core is communication. If you are not communicating something to the audience, whether that is your laptop or a few hundred fans, you are not really doing anything. Effective communication is what spawns action. In fact action is really one of the best ways to communicate and is what leading by example really means. When you consider what you do in terms of communication I think it helps to gain a valuable perspective on what is really important. The focus shifts to others and that is always a good.