on keyboards

April 01, 2014

When you learn to play an instrument, you are learning about how to make music, and ‘making music’ is not a trivial task. One must first decide what exactly constitutes ‘music.’ Many argument; much disagree. I’ll leave that one alone.

Once you have settled on what prototypical corporeal form you may like to attempt to sublimate your personal muse into, you must develop a vocabulary to discuss and conceive of that form. This is ‘music theory.’ Usually, we think of scales, and chords, and notes, and rhythms… counterpoint, phrase structure, etc etc and all of that and on and on, but it needn’t be so limited. The umbrella of the term provides sufficient coverage to encompass whatever ad-hoc linguistic representation one might hope to employ. Some theories may be ‘better’ than others, or not. Once again: wow, such discuss, many disagrees.

And then, regardless of how you conceive it, or what you want it to be, there comes the actual making of the music. Your hands on a fret or a key, or your breath through a reed or your voice, or something like that, something like that…most of the time. And this, I think (at least for me) is the hard part. The body can be slow to learn new patterns, and there is really nothing particularly physically intuitive about the angle of a violin, or the valve structure of a trumpet, or the finger motions necessary to play the piano. And so we practice. Hours and hours and hours and weeks and years to make them so: to feel as natural with a mouthpiece or a fretboard as with our steps forward or our breaths.

Regardless of the instrument, or the style, and even, in the end, the quality (however you may choose to define it) of the sound that you make- in many ways the central project of the musician’s practice is to turn the physical act of ‘making music’ into a second nature… into something that feels comfortable. That’s the whole point of all those hours.

Similarly: what language do you? Is it statically typed? Is it some flavor of lisp? Do you write rails apps? Do you write machine code? You are probably typing. I’d guess that the majority of people who work with computers are typing during most of the time they are working with computers. That is not to say that the process of development, or design, or architecting, or-whatever-you-want-to-call-it-ing software is just typing… clearly, but in terms of the physical relationship to our work, typing is mostly it: click click; clack clack.

I have an idea for a great project! A full featured typing practice for programmers! Something more than Mavis Beacon style homerow lessons! We use super weird symbols like, all the time! That would be so useful…

Oh, someone already did that one…… ::sad trombone::

But I am very glad that it exists.

I’ve started to practice my touch typing every so often with a metronome, or along to music. A tempo well below my top typing speed is ideal- the goal is accuracy and precision, not quickness. You must be patient and relaxed while processing the necessary motions at a steady and even clip in order to get faster. This may seem counter-intuitive; it took me nearly a decade to understand this idea fully and apply it to my instrument. Once again: to speed up, slow down. Minimize motion; minimize tension. Physically- that is all there is to it, but mastery of an interface, whether a keyboard or a keyboard, requires the internalization of significantly unnatural articulations of the fingers. It takes a long time, but it can take less with focus.

At least, these are the lessons I can apply from music- I have yet to become a masterful typist- though I really was quite enthusiastic about finding typing.io. I imagine that a true fluency in typing even exotic characters smoothly and without thinking about it at all will dramatically improve not only my productivity, but also, more importantly, my enjoyment of the process of producing code- regardless of the language, or the OS, or whatever else. We strive, after all, for expressivity and conciseness. It is hard to make either of those things happen without comfort simply touching the interface that we spend so much time with.

And I feel bad, gentle reader, for subjecting you to that theramin link. The theramin started its life as a venerable addition to the pantheon before becoming a sci-fi sound effect, did you know? It even had its virtuosos. At its best it sounds like a singer with an impossible range!