Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login

I find music is a lot like the movie Ratatouille.

I'm a classically trained violinist, and when learning there was a huge sense of "just follow the rules and the sheet music exactly until you get to composing".

In that sense, I think there's a lot of similarities to a lot of engineering practices. There's a straight line to follow on a lot of tasks, adhere to the rules and leave the magic/cleverness to the system architects.

When I switched to guitar, and subsequently discovered the world of prog/math metal, it felt incredibly freeing. However describing that kind of freedom to my friends who adhered to sheet music exclusively was a struggle. Polyrhythms, improvisation, playing by feel were blasphemous to that world.

In that sense I liken it to ratatouille. You must cook the recipe the master chef created exactly, and it's not our place to iterate and experiment.

As a software engineer, I see a lot of the same mindset often. There's a world of engineers who are rigid about sticking to the tried and tested way of doing things. There's nothing wrong with it, in fact it's very valued.

However you need the counterpoint. You need the innovative composers, you need the recipe creators, you need the system designers/architects. Having only one or the other is an imbalance.

I think that's what a lot of engineers get hung up on. Music is taught as rules.

but those rules quickly fall apart when you start having to account for feel, for emotion, for cultural differences etc... Things that aren't able to be captured in rules cleanly.




As a professional classical musician and engineering lead, I agree with you whole heartedly about the parallels between music and engineering.. and I encourage you to take it a step further.

Music, of any genre, is never about reproducing the notes and dynamics accurately. MIDI does that, and the day we can create historically informed MIDI we will have it perfected.

Rather, music is about the spontaneous communication and individuality that occurs WHILE reproducing those notes and dynamics. Genres differ in which dimensions of freedom the musician can use, but not in that fundamental objective. In classical music it's what makes it worthwhile to hear different interpreters of the same piece. It's why it's worth the 5 year waiting list to see Wagner in Bayreuth, when arguably the greatest rendition of The Ring in 100 years (Solti, Chicago, fight me) is available relatively cheaply everywhere.

If that's the case...

1) Encourage your classical friends to break out of the mindset of "cooking the recipe the master chef made exactly." Audiences complain that classical music is sterile and doesn't speak to them, precisely because this mindset is so common among all but the most elite performers. Also, notice that NO elite performers approach their musicianship that way.

2) Notation and theory must have a slightly different purpose than the one you articulated. I believe they're simply there as tools of communication between musicians, to describe recurring patterns we hear. Otherwise we'd be forever saying things like "Beethoven 3, is the one that starts with that thing where it sounds like it's going to end but really doesn't." Calling it a "deceptive cadence" or even a "surprise VI" is just way easier and lets us communicate (and operate) on a higher level of abstraction. It's the same way "dependency injector class" tells you about a given chunk of code, and lets us reason about its place in the larger structure. A great engineer isn't defined by their ability to reproduce a textbook dependency injection class, but rather by their ability to adapt the concept of dependency injection well, in the right places and times.


Very much agreed. Something I found of great interest, especially given my cultural heritage, are alternate forms of musical theory and notation.

I've seen some rather niche notation types that focus on emotion and relative energy while describing notes instead of the usual Italian volume notations alongside the bar notations.

But more interestingly (to me) are things like Indian classical music that doesn't have explicit notation, and instead has a taught relative theory, or other countries like Indonesia that have non octave based scales who's music can only be expressed in western notation by microtones.

Anyway I very much agree that music is a communication language at its core, with music notation existing to aid the spread/consistency of its playback, but it shouldn't stiffle the intention.


> I think that's what a lot of engineers get hung up on. Music is taught as rules.

That's not what I see (as the author of a cross-platform DAW for the last 22 years).

Engineers get hung up on the fact that despite the reality that almost all western (and, realistically) almost all of the world's musical tradition(s) are in fact rooted in clear rules and numerical relationships, music culture wants to use terminology and practice that pretend that it's not.

The simplest example: the major scale. Like all scales, it's just a pattern of intervals. What intervals? Why is the scale not named after the interval series, which would allow you to see how similar it is to the minor scale, and precisely how it differs (ditto for comparisons between any other scale).

Another example: ordinal naming of scale degrees, "the third" etc. These have no consistent meaning other than when you write out the notes of the scale, you count through them. But the third of a minor scale is a different interval from the root than the third of a major scale. If they were named by interval, you'd have consistent naming no matter what the scale is.

There are dozens more examples like this, where consistency in naming would ease many a musician-engineer's mind.


I think your argument is conflating music theory rules with consistency and accessibility.

I agree that the naming and accessibility could be significantly easier. That's just the nature of language though, and music theory is a language. One that's a cumulation of many cultures.

However the rules (in western theory) are very consistent and clear if you've learned your foundations. This is no different than programming too.

If you know the circle of fifths, and the WWHWWWH series of modes, there's a very strong consistency.

Now if we're arguing about why fifths, and why we name our modes after Greek groups rather than something numerical, that's valid. But it's just like the names of the days of the week. Once you know them, it's just an arbitrary term that you internalize.

The rules I'm bemoaning in my post are things like sticking to a fixed time signature or scale, playing perfectly aligned notes. Versus things like polyrhythms and drunk drumming, exploring disharmony or using alternates to octaves.


yes, I understood what you meant by rules. I just don't come across many people complaining about those "rules of practice". If you've listened to reasonable amount of music, you already know that those rules are made to be broken (once learned, maybe).

The problem with the day of the week comparison is that, yes, they are arbitrary and you just learn them and be done with it, but with music the names are just the building blocks for a vocabulary/dialog about a creative process, and so you just don't throw down "play the 5th" the way you might say "it's Wednesday". Instead, that language is interacting with a conceptual process which the language doesn't mirror. If the four components of music are rhythm, timbre, melody and harmony, the last two are all about intervals, and almost none of the music terminology in the west reflects that.


THANK YOU for the difficult work you do working on a DAW. I have enormous respect for your domain, you are "doing god's work" (or noodles' work, or whatever floats your boat) for sure!

I think it's a common mistake, especially in classical music, to think about musical traditions as "rooted in clear rules and numerical relationships." It's analogous to thinking that language is rooted in clear rules and structures.

The truth is just the reverse, the rules, numbers, and structures are rooted in music. They exist to describe an organic, emergent cultural mechanism that is continuously changing. Ask yourself: which came first, music or theory? Language or grammar? There are plenty of musical styles with no formalized structure or numeric relationships, just as there are plenty of languages with no formalized structure or even spelling. Grammar and music theory/notation are fingers pointing at the moon, and we are looking at the finger.

And when we try to engineer systems to help people point at the moon, we should be focused on the finger. Musical structure and numeric relationships are the way people communicate about music, and the tools should speak their language. Unfortunately they have to grapple with the painful inconsistencies in that language and those structures. Computer music comprehension has problems analogous to computer language comprehension - emergent complexity so high it took neural nets to finally achieve real utility.

PS - it's true that Western music has, near the bottom, some relationships that were mathematically derived by none other than Pythagoras, among others. Relationships of fourths, fifths, octaves, and equal temperment all had numeric justification... But that justification was still only there to describe the practice which had already become common, an explanation of "why this sounds harmonious" as well as a proscription for "how to sound harmonious". That some rules are internalized by some generations and broken by others illustrates exactly the problem with the system.


Thanks for your thanks.

However, I disagree quite a lot with what you've written above. Not really as a matter of historiography - yes, of course, I agree that the history of musical cultures is not the same as the history of mathematics. I agree that musical practice is not rooted in an understanding of numerical relationships. I also agree that the higher level elements of musical composition/improvisation/performance are not sensibly described with math.

However, one half of what defines music as a sensory experience (melody and harmony, the other half being timbre and rhythm/time) is totally, fundamentally, absolutely embedded in the nature of the intervals between pitches. The intervals we use (regardless of any actual absolute pitch selection) and how we use them seem to me to be almost indisputably rooted in the physics/mathematics of the harmonic series even if the development of the musical practice surrounding intervals had been done in complete ignorance of this.

Western musical culture uses a set of terminology and even concepts that obscure the fundamental importance of intervals. The use of scale degrees rather than intervalic terminology means that there is a lack of consistency in naming that isn't necessary (it's really a historical accident), but also a lack of focus on the most important concept for understanding the nature of melody and harmony.

I was really impressed to discover last year that Byzantine musical culture doesn't notate pitch, only intervals. Song melodies are remembered and notated as a series of intervals between the pitches, so that you can start from any note and play something that almost every human being alive will recognize as the same melody (they also do not have octave equivalence, but that's a nother story), even though the actual pitches are totally different. Of course, western musicians can do this too, but consider how much more cognitive load there is in understanding the process when you consider a melody to be made up of specific set of pitches, or a specific set of scale degrees, rather than just a set of intervals.

> But that justification was still only there to describe the practice which had already become common, an explanation of "why this sounds harmonious"

Yes, I agree that the historical ordering is as you describe. We do, however, change our terminology and practice in many other fields as we gain new insight or come to understand better ways of approaching things. I would argue that we could learn from both other musical cultures, and from the numerical/physical understanding of intervals to get to much more rational, consistent terminology and practice when it comes to melody and harmony.




Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: