Thursday, November 24, 2022

An extension of thought and body: music, programming, and art in general


     Once upon a time, after I had been working on developing a project for Bell Labs for about a year and a half, I woke up with a line of code staring me in the eye (not literally -- this was before laptops -- it was all in my mind) and showing me how to fix a bug I had been told about the day before. I went to work, fixed the bug, tested it, and submitted it to the code base. Then I started looking around for a new project to work on. It might have been useful to the company but getting that merged with the software (tens of thousands of lines of code which I had written) was not a healthy sign.

     As a child, I took various music lessons. The first -- and still my favorite -- instrument was the violin. I started off really horrible (but almost everyone does). But I got better and by the end of elementary school, I was part of a string quartet. No danger of a record label but no one stood up and ran out screaming. I was getting decent but then, as part of a perpetual budget cut, the school district said goodbye to the string instructor and my family couldn't afford private lessons. Later, because brass was still possible, I tried cornet but just didn't get excited. I then tried organ which I liked but schoolwork was taking more and more time and choices had to be made.

     So, how do these experiences relate? I worked so hard, and long, on the software that I could remember, and visualize, it. I could do a virtual execution of the code, in my mind, to track down possible data paths where there might be bugs. In music, I reached the point where I no longer thought about how to play a note. The connection between written music and playing was starting to disappear as fluency was being established.

     Music, programming, art, language. Once the tools are mastered you can get an idea and then put it down in the appropriate form. For programming, that might be Java, or 'C', or machine language, or whatever. In music, it might come out as sounds from a piano, or guitar, or a sax. But the cool part is that moment when you stop making the transition from thought to action as a conscious act. The piano becomes an extension of your body. You tell it to play notes and chords with timing and rests and it does it. The more you practice, the less the conscious mind is involved. It can be equally true with software or charcoal or driving a race car.

     Of course, not all has to go through the process of conscious to automatic. The brain stem is largely ready for us at birth -- so we (most of us) can breathe and see and hear and have our bodies respond properly to food and such. There are disciplines that appear to allow conscious control over the activities controlled by the brainstem but we are fortunate that most arrive pre-programmed. Although I do not know whether it is true, perhaps fluency in conscious activity may start to intrude into brain stem use.

     Perhaps after another one or two hundred thousand more words of writing, my writing will enter into that state of fluency.

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