Enlightenment or: Music is to Language as Music is to Music

February 24, 2021
Confidence: highly likely

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

–Richard Feynman

I had a small taste of enlightenment today.

When learning music, things like notes and scales and intervals are very often referred to as the “vocabulary” of music. The metaphor here has never been clear to me — I suppose they’re the boring things you need to learn and get good at before you can start expressing musical ideas? But I never took this metaphor seriously. Music might metaphorically be a “language,” but it’s clearly not actually a language.

Except that I kept hearing this phrase, over and over. The notes and scales and intervals are the vocabulary of music. At least five books I’ve read on the topic have said so.

“That’s interesting,” I thought. All of these books must have gotten this language metaphor from the same place. It requires some suspension of disbelief, but it’s not impossible.

So, that’s where things stood.

This morning, I was tutoring a student in Haskell. We were working through some of the boring fundamentals — things that aren’t interesting in their own right, but absolutely need to be in place before you can even think about tackling big programming projects. It’s very, very, very easy to tell a programmer who has skipped the fundamentals; they can sort of run the problem-solving maze, but, lacking understanding of the basic building blocks, get stuck as soon as something is slightly out of place.

Anyway, we were working on this student’s fundamentals. And I caught myself using the “language” metaphor. “These things aren’t very interesting, but they’re the vocabulary we’ll need to express elegant thoughts later on.” Except, this time, it clearly wasn’t a metaphor. Having the exotic experience of needing to rewind my understanding in order to explain it to a beginner made me very aware of just how high a cloud of abstractions I work at on a daily basis.

In programming, the fundamentals really are the vocabulary of the language. And you need to wield them fluently in order to be able to focus on and express the vision. Every programming task requires writing case expressions, spinning up new types, and knowing exactly where to stick the monad. If this stuff doesn’t roll off your tongue, you can still sorta get work done, but it’s slow, and the vision never comes out quite right.

All of a sudden, music (and my last few years’ inability to make progress musically) made sense. This “metaphor” that everyone had been trying tell me turned out to not be a “metaphor” at all. At least, not in the literary way where we say “the night was a blanket.” Music isn’t poetically a language; it’s actually one.

The takeaway is very clear. I’ve been ignoring the fundamentals — things like knowledge of my bass’ fretboard, and practicing scales, and transposing things into different keys — because they felt boring and unrelated to the task I really wanted to be good at: playing music. But taking the language metaphor seriously and as literally true, everything makes sense. Yes, technique is boring and uninteresting, but it’s not unrelated to music; it’s the stuff that real musical prowess is gated behind.

At my heart, I’m a truly lazy man. You can see it in the time I decided to try to learn how to get good at music as fast as possible. There’s something dangerous about being smart; it’s that you learn that you can often find one weird trick that will get you the grades without doing the work. That might work well enough if you’re just trying to wave your arms around and distract humans. But for skills with extremely observable artifacts — things like computer programs and music — it’s extremely hard to bullshit.

In my forever-quest to get good at music without doing the technique, I’ve been fooling myself. It’s not that technique is some side-channel skill that makes you better at music; as it it turns out, technique is music — or at least, it’s the stuff that music’s made of.

I don’t know how it’s taken me 30 years to realize this, but better late than never, I suppose.

Really makes you wonder what other metaphors you might not be taking seriously enough, doesn’t it?