Music has been a part of my life as far back as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of my dad playing his favorites like Hendrix, Dylan, Taylor, Clapton, Morrison, Zeppelin and Creedence while playing his air guitar jumping around the living room. He loved music with a passion and would always end every solo with, “How do they do that?” Of course, he was asking it rhetorically to his eight-year-old son but it made me wonder too, especially as I grew older and cultivated my own obsession.
Well…how did they do it? Learning music theory, like programming, sounds like such a daunting and arduous task. I don’t think anyone would refute that notion but each can be broken down into smaller, more manageable subsets.
Jimi Hendrix is widely regarded as the best guitarist to ever walk the earth. He was asked in a 1969 interview on the Dick Cavett show if he could read music. He replied, “No, not at all.” Many of the best musicians of all time fall into the same category. Names like Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Slash and Taylor Swift all follow Jimi’s lack of classical music theory knowledge. So where’s the rub? How do these artists create such iconic melodies without any real training?
When a musician runs their hand up and down the neck of a guitar it looks, to the untrained eye, like they are just arbitrarily pressing their fingers down on random places and making sounds appear out of thin air. In reality, they are hitting notes that are all in the same scale. This is an easy way to group notes together without any musical theory knowledge. The player can learn the notes and practice them enough that they become imprinted in their brains. In the same way, you don’t need a second to think when asked your name. They aren’t thinking of where the next note is, it simply happens. Once this is achieved that person can improvise and get creative with the melodies they play.
This is where the argument of whether music and programming are more left or right-brain dominant. There is still some debate on this subject but it is widely believed that the right hemisphere of the human brain is primarily used for logic, math and problem solving; while the left hemisphere is tasked with creativity and artistry. Some may immediately say programming is the right hemisphere and music is the left. I would respectfully disagree. While studying both subjects the right hemisphere is utilized for learning specific structures and syntax well enough that the left hemisphere can be unlocked to use that knowledge in creative ways. These sides are connected only by a fibrous material called the Corpus Callosum. Many people are considered left or right-brain dominant but good musicians and programmers are able to take their technical knowledge and apply it to their creative medium to build things the world has never seen or heard before.
I’m currently enrolled in The Flatiron School learning programming for the first time in my life. I approached it the same way I approached music all those years ago. Learn the syntax, logic and frameworks so well that they become second-nature. Then get to a point where programming becomes more creative than logical and rigid. Programming, like music, is a lifelong learning journey. You can never learn all the scales or language documentation but a great teacher once told me, and I’m paraphrasing here, “reference them so many times that they become impossible to forget.”