Day 45: Composing Music and Code

I am not a musician. Yeah, I was a vocalist in a couple of bands in high school and college, but all I really did is copy the original song. The notion of coming up with a new approach to a song was way beyond my imagination.

I am amazed by people who can write their own original songs. How can you create a melody from… nothing? It really is beyond my ability to comprehend. Lyrics seem straightforward enough, but the music?

A few years ago at a conference I was hanging around in the evening with some friends, several of whom were musicians that had brought their guitars. One of them played a song, and I asked him where the song was from. He replied that it was one of his own. “Wait: you wrote that yourself?” That surprised the hell out of me!

Now that my curiosity was piqued, I couldn’t help but ask him how he does it. He replied that sometimes he has some little bits of music in his head, just a couple of notes. When he’s practicing his guitar, he’d just sit around playing some small riffs; just a few notes here and there. He’ll play one, then change it up a little bit, and if it sounds better, he’ll start working with that. Over time he’ll have a few more such bits floating around in his head, and every now and then he’ll play a few that just start to flow together. At that moment he can hear the overall melody, and he has to write it down, or record it – anything to capture it before it fades. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is, or what else is happening; he can’t do anything else until he has it down on paper/tape/whatever.

Now I understood: his process for composing music was very similar to what I experience when coming up with a coding design to a given problem. I’ll play around in my mind with a few approaches I’ve used in the past, changing them around as needed to see if that would work. At some point, though, the pieces seem to align themselves into the solution I need, and I can see it clearly in my mind. At that point, I have to write down what I’m seeing before I lose it. I can remember times when I missed appointments because I was heads-down writing such a solution.

The act of creation is remarkably similar for both cases: playing around with ideas/riffs, and once the solution “appears”, a furious effort to record it. And it’s that “playing around” part that is really hard to explain to others: to them, it just looks like you’re screwing around instead of working.

I do my best thinking when I’m walking, not when I’m planted in front of a keyboard. If you’re ever stuck trying to come up with a solution, try changing what you’re doing. Go for a walk, work on your garden, vacuum the floor – anything to move away from the computer and get your body moving. That act alone helps free the brain to make connections that it might otherwise never make.

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