Music in the Time of Coronavirus

Some thoughts on composition, and building musical instruments.

I hope you’re all doing well during these strange times of quarantine and uncertainty. I’ve been passing the time by playing my guitar, and the experience has generated a few insights that I think are worth sharing. First, some background, then the nuggets.

I played as a teenager for a few years, and had a fairly cramped relationship with music. I was good, technically, but I didn’t have much feel for music, and compensated for this by learning really difficult solo jazz arrangements of songs I didn’t listen to, like Autumn Leaves or Lullaby of Birdland. I can still feel the prickling shame and performance anxiety I’d feel at big family gatherings when my uncle or mom would ask me to play something. A test! And I had no repertoire that was fun for anyone else, no chords, no ability to lift myself or anyone else up with music.

What I was missing was that it’s not about the musician at all. I started up again maybe six weeks ago, with the explicit goal of learning how to make music that other people can participate in and love and enjoy. I have a little daughter now, and I’m aching for ways to show her how she’s changed my life. Playing music for her feels like a way to channel that intensity.

Composition, Emacs vs Word

What do I find so obsessing about the guitar, this time around? The guitar, it turns out, is not something you learn; it’s a pretty package around a set of building blocks designed to click together nicely. It’s an invitation to build.

The fretboard of a guitar is a difficult interface. Six strings, 20 frets, 120 little unlabeled quanta of sound. Now, layer on “chords” and the impossibly many ways of layering up to six sounds in space… and then time and rhythm come in. How is it possible to do anything here?

Compare learning the fretboard to learning how to use a car. A car has a wheel and two pedals, both with clear functions. Once you learn the interface, you can’t make it do anything new. We can all imagine, the first time we see a car, what perfect driving looks like. Can you do this for an instrument?

Think up your idea of the platonic ideal of guitar. Now watch Tommy Emmanuel:

Did you guess right? Dude’s made a deal with the devil. No one 200 years ago would have looked at a lute and imagined anything like what Tommy’s able to do with the guitar. What is happening here?

A musical instrument is an opinionated kind of interface. You get quantized notes, courtesy of the relationship between the frets and the strings, and culture gives you rules of composition. You can chunk notes together into musical phrases, add them back to your stable, and keep combining in effectively infinite ways.

The building blocks of music are designed to be composed, so that complexity can erupt at any scale; a single note or an entire album can change your life.

A car doesn’t work like this. A car’s steering wheel is not designed to be composed with anything. You can master a car, but it’s a different sort of mastery than you find with an instrument.

An instruction manual for a musical instrument makes no sense at all. You’d do well to read the instruction manual for a car, or a coffee maker, or an iPad.

The programming language Lisp is like an instrument. The entire language is built on seven primitive operations; if anything in the universe is computable, you can build it, in principle, out of these seven blocks, using Lisp’s composition rules.

The text editor Emacs is built out of Lisp’s blocks, and is an instrument in its own right, opaque and confusing until you learn the rules of composition. See Neal Stephenson’s essay “In the Beginning was the Command Line“ for a love letter to this beautiful program.

Microsoft Word is not an instrument. You figure it out, and it boxes you in. A jigsaw puzzle isn’t an instrument; I suspect a set of Penrose tiles absolutely is. The roman alphabet is, of course, and the different human languages are different sets of composition rules.

Building Instruments

It’s very, very difficult to create a new instrument, but I think more and more that this is one of the highest callings in life. Go learn an instrument, be it a programming language, a musical instrument, or the ability to write well and clearly, and sensitize yourself to how different this feels from most of the tasks that fill up a life.