So far I’ve heard at least 3 different accounts of composers turning into software programmers — including a testimonial from an administrator from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab who said that music people (especially composers) often turn out to be very good coders. It has something to do with abstract structural thinking, practice/focus, and formal organizational skills that both professions require a heavy amount of in their line of work.
At the last Lean LA meeting (Patrick Vlaskovits and Brant Cooper were promoting their new book, The Lean Entrepreneur, which I helped out a bit with), I briefly talked to Brant about my music related projects. Since I’m about to go into heavy marketing mode this summer I asked him if he had any suggestions or advice for me in those areas.
He drew a parallel between music and software that I thought was pretty interesting: he said that what software startups primarily look for in their “early adopters” is a strong, very clear emotional response. It’s not necessarily about numbers of “hits”, “likes”, publicity, or even the amount of funding that you’ve managed to raise, but the amount of passion that your first users were willing to put into the product itself. In a lot of ways, for early stage companies who have no standing infrastructure to rely on, this passion — the belief in the idea in itself — is often the only thing that keeps the project afloat. And it so happens that this is what helps businesses to stay afloat in the long term, rather than just becoming another part of the hype cycle.
Then I thought: well, these were almost the exact same things that musicians look for in their fan…trust and loyalty. Stars and celebrities have been “made” before in the past by paying people lots of money to say good things about certain people, and this happens all the time in the world of startups as well. But if the connection there isn’t real, then it eventually fades away as soon as the infusion of cash is gone. Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is: with money and influence, you can make people do things for you — but you can’t change the way how they feel about you or your product.
Incidentally, this is the main reason why I removed all of my dynamic and expression markings from my recent compositions because I’ve always felt weird having to tell performers what to “feel” in the music. I’m sort of in the camp where I think of musical compositions as “building” something, rather than placing an importance in “expressing myself” through my art. In short, I want my music to be “about” something, rather than it simply be a representation of myself and my feelings. (I figured the latter would be there anyway if people really wanted to know.)
Lately it’s become really obvious that despite my background in music I tend to think more like an engineer rather than what an “artist” has come to be known as in recent years…I just write the notes and rhythms down on paper and ask the performers and audience about what they think of it afterwards. It’s akin to building a website, attracting people to use it, then asking the users what it felt like to live in that world for a short while. It’s what I’m good at, what I like doing, and what seems to be working — at least for me.
On the flip side, there have been lots of compositions where the composer explicitly tells the performer to “be emotional” or play “with feeling”, whether it’s sad, happy, angry, or whatever the piece calls for. Is this right? Does it even work? You can create contexts which might evoke those types of feelings in people (a soundtrack for a film or video game for example), but a composer giving “emotional instructions” to performers outright does seem kind of strange — in my experience this approach had tended not to work too well in general.
You know that the expression is “true” when it comes from a singer-songwriter or improviser, assuming they’ve created the music themselves from beginning to end with no outside mediation. But imagine if there was a video game or movie that told you — “feel happy now” or “feel sympathetic to the hero now”, as if you had an obligation to feel a certain way right on cue. Sounds absurd? Yet, this is what happens in the world of music all the time, at least between the composer and performer in classical music contexts. Even discounting ethical issues, I stopped using expression markings altogether because all I could see was performers either ignoring or feigning the instructions any time it was used. (Along with a few smart-ass comments to go along with it.) It reminded me way too much of bad management techniques used in administrative situations so I decided to take all of them out.
When you get down to it, though, it all comes down to context. Even in the cheesiest, most contrived movie narratives actors at least have the right to ask what their motivations are — something that I’d like to see happen more often in the music world as well. Even a piece with the greatest amount of emotion and sentimentality should at least have a good reason for performers to play a certain way without them having to grasp at straws for possible meanings and reasons behind the intent.
Luckily the software world doesn’t seem to have the problems the art world has because the artists (i.e. programmers) have the discipline of impartiality hard-wired into their culture and educational systems. But it would be a mistake to say that they’re not interested in creativity or emotional matters, because like us composers, they’re inherently reliant on the “experience” that they provide for its audience members — like us, their craftsmanship lies in the realm of the performing arts. It’s a different type of performance, but what both composers and programmers want you to do is simply believe that what they’re doing is of some value to you and the world at large.
A few days after the meeting, a similar question popped up on Quora about the music/software issue, with plenty of insightful answers to go along with it. So I’m not the only one who sees the connection here, but it seems like the composer-as-engineer parallel only works with particular composers who’re sympathetic to that type of approach. Say, composers like Bach, Haydn, Schoenberg, Bartok, Hindemith, and Reich et al. really “laid the foundation” for future generations of musicians because they went through the trouble of codifying their ideas into a coherent system. We’re still studying The Art of Fugue, the 12-tone system, Mikrokosmos, The Craft of Musical Composition, and phasing processes because their works are musical resources, in addition to being good music in itself.
Compare this to, say, composers like Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner, Debussy — those who were primarily known for their “passion”, “expression”, and ability to push the boundaries of existing systems. Sure, you could try to imitate their style but chances are you’ll just end up sounding just like a copy of one of their works except not as good. Their music isn’t meant to be copied directly because it’s an expression of their personality, ego, and approach all rolled into one, leading to the creation of something that’s unique to them and them only. At the same time, the genius of Beethoven wouldn’t have amounted to anything if Haydn hadn’t laid the groundwork for him ahead of time (something he probably never wanted to admit to in public, even if it was true), while the former’s influence on the world of music pretty much goes without saying at this point. So there’s always a push and pull that goes on between these two types of mindsets, often going back and forth in a cyclical manner.
There’s examples in other disciplines too: the inventiveness of Leonardo Da Vinci vs. the energy/intensity of Michelangelo, the empiricism of David Hume vs. the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant, the introspection of Jimmy Carter vs. the charisma of Ronald Reagan, and so on, which have all built upon each other in various ways throughout history. Speaking from a purely stereotypical perspective, you can draw a parallel between the work/productivity related image of Bill Gates-Microsoft and the passion/creativity of Steve Jobs-Apple as a recent example of this pattern playing itself over once again.
Of course you can’t have one without the other and most people are usually somewhere in between the two. What’s probably crazy right now, though, is that you can be (or maybe even have to be) both types simultaneously in order to make it as an artist or entrepreneur. Why not have the passion and vision of Jobs and be super-productive like Gates as well? Sure, you’ll probably settle into your own personality sometime later, but if you’re just starting out you won’t have the luxury of being picky. Just be everything and do everything, as they say.
What does this all mean in the long run? In a lot of ways, the more things change, the more things stay the same — technological changes are happening much, much, faster, but it’s usually safe to assume that how we interact with one another doesn’t tend to change all that much. (Sure I write a lot of emails now, but if that hadn’t been invented I’d probably just be writing a lot of regular letters instead.)
So it might not be so helpful to think of music composition (which has been around for hundreds of years) and software systems (several decades) as being that much different. It’s all about the “experience”, after all — what audiences “take home” with them even after their interaction with your product is over. And at this point I’m pretty sure the two disciplines will continue to become closer as time goes on, since they utilize many of the same types of skills. But in the end, they both end up being about people and how your product affects the way they go about things in their day to day lives.