I’m accidentally surrounded by musicians.

I’m accidentally surrounded by musicians.

I’m sitting in a room full of web developers, mostly. The region’s most talented programmers, designers, writers, quality engineers, and product owners, carefully selected by a rigorous (but wholly tolerable) recruitment and interview process, assembled here to build the highest quality applications. Around me are people who are devoted to the craft of app-making, immersed in its complicated syntax and subtleties. We love it. Every person in this room is highly intelligent and capable of more than just their role in our scrum teams. We have sports enthusiasts and yoga instructors, activists, volunteers, parents, hipsters, hackers and chefs. Authors, cyclists, gamers, photographers, jewellers, knitters and vegetarians… from a diverse variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Such a heterogeneous crowd you’d be unlikely to find in any normal social scene – we’re all so vividly different, but we have one thing in common: we’re gathered here today because we are awesome at building web apps, and we’re in this gig to exercise that skill.

This thin slice of society would seem to have just that one thing in common, but there’s another property our motley bunch shares. A statistically improbable proportion of the people here are musically gifted.

Tech Writer by day, Blue Singer by night

Just scanning this room, I see several guitarists, a pop singer, bassist, trumpet, trombone. A world-class classical cellist. Over there, a fine blues singer, accordionist, clarinettist, and saxophonist. I’m a classically trained pianist and composer, with a varied history of playing saxophone in jazz and funk bands. Quite a few can play piano better than they’re humbly willing to admit. Many of us are multi-instrumentalists. Euphonium, flute, violin, french horn. Jug and washboard. Drums and percussion of all kinds: rock kit, tabla, bongo, djembe, claves, guiro. A couple of us also geek out on electroacoustics, analog synthesis, audio engineering, production. Several of us are learned in music theory, notation, orchestration and other academic musical skills.

That’s uncanny, but perhaps not surprising. The math-music connection has been gabbed about for centuries. Musicians tend to be good mathematicians, and mathematicians tend to love creating music. Computer programmers arise from the same genetic mishap – the one that produces logical people with a fascination for finding the beauty hidden within complex abstract things.

Musicians, mathies, geeks: they’re the same sort of people in their heads. I don’t believe it’s a causation relationship at all; there’s no chicken or egg. I don’t believe that playing music makes you a better programmer, or that programming makes you a better musician. You’re not going to get better at detecting an off-by-one error in your JavaScript function by practicing a Chopin Étude. Rather, I think it’s a correlation – proficiency in either is a manifestation of the same underlying inclinations.

Listing the ways in which music and software are similar becomes a rambling discussion pretty quickly – it’s a very well-blogged topic and similes abound. You can search online and find studies and articles galore that explain the correlation scientifically and anecdotally. Half way through the list of all the ways in which software is like music, you’ll begin to expect that a room full of programmers is very likely to contain a disproportionate number of musicians.

I hypothesize that programmers & musicians have some part of the brain that craves a certain type of stimulation, and we can get our fix either by strumming a guitar or by writing some code. I know it when I feel it. Programmers and musicians alike orate about being “in the zone”. When you’ve practiced enough that you forget what your fingers are doing and it feels like your abstract ideas are flowing straight into the medium. That’s the zone, and it’s highly addictive.

My brain, when composing music
or writing code in “the zone”.

My brain, when eating nachos in
my underwear over the sink.

Many of us got our first exposure early, and have been hooked ever since. I got my first dose playing the piano as a young child, and discovered much later that I could get the same focused bliss through coding. For many people it may have happened the opposite order. While the jocks were getting hooked on serotonin, endorphins, adrenaline and testosterone, the artsy geeks and hackers got hooked on cortisol, oxytocin, and immunoglobin. We’re all addicts.

While I’m convinced that there’s a pleasure principle that inspires us to do both, there’s a practical side that pushes in favour of programming as a career. Reality is harsh. One of those pursuits is a viable career in demand that can earn enough income to support a family; whereas the other is – for most musicians - an expensive hobby at best, at worst a stubborn dedication that causes a prolonged adolescence of poverty and macaroni dinners.

Mine is a cliché story. I studied music in school and tried to sustain a music career for many years.. Despite my effort and talent, I always had to maintain a “day job” to pay the bills, and through a strange series of accidents and opportunities I became a programmer. Musical people with sufficient curiosity discover they have this parallel aptitude for programming, so we end up in this industry because it’s the path of least resistance to an affluent lifestyle. There’s a quirky pocket of people assembled in this office who discovered there’s a magical career path where you can get the bliss and the money.

Let me stress that being musical is NOT a prerequisite for working here – no one will ask you about it in your interview, and frankly we don’t care if you can sing or play an instrument. All we care about is that you are passionate about making web applications, and that you’ve developed your skill enough that you can contribute to a kick-ass team. That said, we could use a banjo player...


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