Like A Song: What Music Taught Me About Programming, Part One

I’ve played guitar for a long time, and it has definitely informed how I approach other disciplines, much like martial arts. Today I’m going to examine the guitar technique of three famous guitarists, and discuss how levels of musical proficiency have a lot in common with programming technique.

Bob Dylan

Picture of Bob Dylan singing and playing guitar

Bob Dylan needs no introduction from me here: one of the more revered popular musicians of the 20th century, he burst onto the New York folk scene in the early 60’s with songs that delivered unprecedented lyrical power and vivid imagery. He has many acclaimed albums under his belt and the scope of his influence is practically incalculable. This early version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” exemplifies Bob Dylan’s style.

So how about his guitar playing? If we’re being honest, his guitar playing (see also  his singing) is pretty unremarkable. Some chords and fingerpicking, the barest possible skill that could deliver a song. While his live arrangements and backing bands are often much more elaborate than what is initially recorded, the musical arrangments at the core of his songs are quite simple.

Bob Dylan’s minimal guitar skills are much like extremely basic programming techniques: they aren’t going to stand out unless they’re delivering something truly remarkable. This is also illustrated in the music of artists with simple backing music that mostly serves as a backdrop for lyric-focused songs, like Patrick Wolf or the Clash.

J. Mascis

J.Mascis playing guitar

J. Mascis is the singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter for Massachusetts-based indie rock outfit Dinosaur Jr. Dinosaur Jr’s fuzzy 70’s-influenced rock is not unlike what Neil Young would have sounded like if Crazy Horse had been a hardcore-punk band. I felt chills the first time that I heard the opening to “Out There”, and still get them every time that I hear it.

Mascis is much like Dylan in that he’ll never be lauded for his singing voice. Unlike Dylan, Mascis is a guitarist of clear proficiency, capable of delivering fuzzy noise, delicate acoustic playing, and lyrical solo work all in equal measure. It says a lot for Mascis that he’s influential even to acclaimed indie rock guitarists such as Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females, and Doug Martsch of Built to Spill. Though acclaim and proficiency aside, Mascis’s playing always serves the song, not the other way around.

J. Mascis’s highly proficient guitar skills are much like programming technique that is obviously adept: their fluency makes a clear contribution to the experience they deliver. This is also illustrated in the music of Kate Bush and Guns N Roses, where strong technique is at play, but more or less equal importance is placed on lyrics and accompaniment.

Ritchie Blackmore

Ritchie Blackmore playing guitar

Ritchie Blackmore is an English guitarist and founding member of legendary hard-rock bands Deep Purple and Rainbow. As the first guitarist to take classical training and mix it with rock and blues techniques, Blackmore stands as one of the original guitar heroes in a genre with no shortage of them. His solo from the song “Burn”  epitomizes the attitude, precision, and blinding speed that made Blackmore a legend.

In the above section on J. Mascis, I allude to Mascis’s playing as always serving the song and that is a big part of why I included Blackmore specifically. “Technique versus feel” is an age-old debate that is mostly subjective, but there may be some truth to the rumors that some musicians with high levels of technique can lack heart in their music. This is one of those things that should go without saying, yet always bears repeating: the best technique imaginable is worthless without a strong message or content that it serves. While Blackmore’s inventive playing makes somewhat boring songs like “Into the Fire” (from In Rock) or “Woman from Tokyo” (from Who Do We Think We Are) more palatable, it elevates great songs like “Lazy” to heights they wouldn’t have been able to reach without it.

Ritchie Blackmore’s virtuoso guitar skills are like the most advanced programming techniques: wielded properly, they can often salvage otherwise unremarkable experiences, and make already-great experiences even better. This is also illustrated in the music of other artists with virtuoso musicians, such as Ben Folds or Van Halen.

In summation, instrumental skills are much like programming skills in that:

  • Good technique is the minimum recommended that a practitioner should aim for, and will be helpful in most use cases.
  • Great technique can make a lot of experiences better, but it can’t completely compensate for a poor experience.
  • Basic technique often isn’t enough to stand out, but it can work in instances where the message is especially powerful.

And in both cases, the overall experience is the most important part of any song, program, or application. I hope this meditation on technique gave you something to think about, and I’ll see you next time!

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