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10 Ways That Programming is Like Playing the Guitar

Connections between seemingly unrelated things make powerful learning devices. Those connections form links between things you are learning and things you already know, helping you to internalize new concepts. They also form stronger interconnections between different things already stored in your memory, and the cross pollination can give you a deeper understanding of both things. I'm always looking for ways to relate what I'm trying to master to what I already know, so when I began learning to play the guitar a couple years ago, I noticed a lot of similarities between it and programming. Here are ten ways that they are related.

You have to practice to get better.

Obviously. No one thinks you can learn the guitar by watching other people play or by listening to great guitar music on your iPod without actually picking up a guitar yourself and playing it. To get good, you have to practice a lot. Your fingers, hands, and arms have a lot to learn for even the simplest songs: fingering chords, picking strings, strumming, and learning basic form. Without practice, you could never learn or get better at playing the guitar.

The same is true of programming, yet most programmers don't practice. College coursework or what you do at your day job probably doesn't count in most cases. That's more equivalent to performing, not practicing. Practice involves dedicating time to learning new aspects of programming or working on those skills that are lagging. You can't do that while you're performing.

You get better faster if you practice consistently.

If you practice the guitar sporadically, only picking it up once a week or less, it is extremely difficult to get any better. You spend your whole practice trying to get back to where you were the last time you played, and you have no time to work on anything new. On the other hand, if you practice 5-7 days a week for an hour or two at a time, you're going to improve rapidly. If you do that practice session at the same time and in the same setting everyday, you'll do even better because your body and mind will trigger on the familiar environment and switch right into practice mode. You can whip through a quick warm-up and get into the meat of your practice without any effort. You know what to do and you don't waste any time getting it done.

You can get the same benefit from consistency with your programming practice. Do it in the same place with the same programming environment and you'll get right into the groove every time. Try practicing everyday at the same time to make it a routine.

You get better faster if you push yourself.

You'll plateau fairly quickly if you learn to play a couple songs and then only practice those songs over and over. It may feel comfortable to be able to play some songs well, but you have to get out of your comfort zone and learn to play new stuff. It's frustrating to practice hard pieces that you haven't memorized yet, or that have complicated passages that tie your fingers in knots. But you won't get better by only practicing what you know. You have to push into uncharted territory to grow.

Practices should consist of about 80% music that you know how to play and 20% music that's just beyond your current abilities. Any more hard stuff than that and the practices can get too frustrating; any less and you won't be progressing as fast as you could. And don't shy away from the hardest part of a piece. That is the part that you should be focusing on most. Sometimes it's a few especially fast measures or a few oddly spaced notes or a tricky chord transition that's causing the most trouble. Play through that particular trouble section. Then reset and play it again and again and again until you've engrained the motion into your muscle memory and can play it without thinking. Then play through the entire song and see if the same measures come right out without any effort. If not, then go back and practice some more. Sometimes you won't get it in one practice session. Try repeating the problem area a set number of times each session, and eventually the right motion will sink in, and you can move onto the next problem area.

Programming has potential problem areas, too. What parts of the language or libraries you're using are difficult to understand? What features are hard to remember or use effectively? What areas of programming do you avoid because you haven't put in the time to learn them? These are the areas where you should be pushing yourself.

The best musicians always practice the fundamentals.

My guitar teacher told me a story of a journalist who was attending a concert featuring a famous pianist. Unfortunately I cannot remember either of their names now. Anyway, the journalist was going to interview this pianist the night before the concert, but when he went to his hotel room, he heard the pianist practicing and decided to listen outside the door for awhile. He would hear a single chord played, then a few second pause, then another chord, and another pause. This went on for some time before the journalist realized that the chords actually were part of one of the pieces that would be played the next day. This famous pianist, one of the best in the world, was practicing his concert pieces one chord at a time, making sure that every key press was absolutely perfect. Even the night before a concert, he was practicing the fundamentals in intimate detail.

Now in that case it was a pianist, but I'm sure that the best guitar players practice the fundamentals just as intensely. Every chord fingering, strum, pick, arpeggio, slide, and hammer on is practiced until it can be played without thinking. The fingers know what to do on their own so that the mind can be free to think about higher level tasks such as composition and style.

What would be the fundamentals to practice in programming? Language constructs, data structures, and algorithms should all be known inside and out. If you know these things cold, you can spend your mental energy on the higher level tasks of software engineering. They are the tools that make up your programming toolbox, and the more tools you know how to use, the more you can do. There are plenty of ways to practice as well. You can go through problems in your favorite algorithms book, implementing them in the language you're practicing. You can get ideas from websites that specialize in practicing programming. You can make up your own exercises and flex your creative muscles while your practicing. The more you practice the fundamentals, the better you're going to get.

The best musicians make hard pieces look easy.

It is amazing to watch a great guitar player. They make even the most complicated pieces look effortless. They have played for so long and practiced with such dedication that their instrument seems like an extension of themselves. They can do things with a guitar that most people wouldn't think possible. The best programmers can do the same thing with their instruments. They have spent so much time learning their tools that they know their text editors, their programming languages, and their environments inside out. And they can make them sing.

The more you practice, the easier it gets.

One thing I started noticing after months of guitar practice was that I would improve without realizing it. After learning a new song, I would attempt to play along with the recording, trying my best to keep up, but failing completely. I would practice the song for days or weeks, feeling like I wasn't making any progress. Then I would try playing along with the recording again and surprisingly, find that I was playing too fast. The improvements snuck in under my radar. I wasn't able to see the progress I was making without some external baseline to compare against. My wife would often provide another baseline. Periodically while practicing a new song, she would say, "Hey, I know what song you're playing!" That's always a good sign.

The point is, as long as you are practicing the fundamentals and the hard parts and doing it consistently, you are getting better, even if it doesn't feel like it. Eventually you'll reach a point where you can do things with ease that used to be a constant struggle. In programming, don't shy away from the difficult concepts. Attack them relentlessly until you can use them effortlessly.

Start by copying from the best.

When starting out with guitar practice, I picked songs that I knew well and wanted to learn how to play myself. Since these were some of my favorite songs with strong guitar parts, I had a clear idea of how to reproduce them, I easily noticed mistakes when I made them, and I could tell I was playing them right when they sounded like the song in my head. As I get better, I try out more difficult songs and learn new techniques. All of this becomes part of my growing repertoire. At some point I'll be able to create my own music and learn improvisation, but the best way for me to progress right now is to imitate and learn from the best.

The same concept should be applied in programming. Seek out good, clean source code to read and learn from. There is a wealth of open source code out there, and you likely have a favorite program that you can get the source for. Read through it and try to understand how the programmers structured the code. What design patterns do they use? What is their coding style? How do they use the language to accomplish their goals. Good source code contains a wealth of knowledge for you to explore.

Music is about patterns and sequences.

A song is not made up of one long series of individual notes. If it was, it would be almost impossible to memorize. A song is made up of sequences of notes, called phrases, that are equivalent to code blocks in programming. There are repeating patterns similar to program loops. There are codas that act like code branches or functions. Many times phrases are repeated with slight variations or shifts up or down the scale to create larger phrases from similar smaller ones.

The guitar chords are full of patterns, too. Most chords are created from only a few basic finger formations that are slid up or down the frets or back and forth to different sets of strings. Sequences of chords tend to follow patterns, and combining them with different strumming patterns creates all kinds of rich, rhythmic sounds. Arpeggios are chords that are played by quickly picking the strings in a pattern instead of strumming. All of these different patterns and sequences, once learned, can be strung together to create very complex sounding music while still being relatively easy to remember.

Programming is quite similar with basic code blocks being built up to create massively complex systems. Without the patterns and sequences that we have developed in programming, code would be a garbled mess, and we couldn't possibly hope to create the software systems we have today.

When learning a new piece, break it into small pieces.

Knowledge that the structure of music is made up of simpler patterns and sequences offers a great way to learn new pieces. If you know the patterns and how they repeat, you can easily play along with a song after only a few practice sessions. I've noticed this ability improving as I learn more chords and techniques. Chord sequences that I learn from one song show up in other songs all the time, and the more I learn, the faster I pick up new songs. Practicing sequences greatly improves muscle memory as well. This is how great guitar players can play a new song after having only heard it once, or even jump in and play along after hearing only a few measures.

The parallels to programming should be fairly obvious by now - picking up new songs is like writing new programs - but the connection goes beyond that. Once you know the basic patterns and sequences of programming, it becomes progressively easier to learn new programming languages. Most knowledge in one language is transferable to others, and the more languages you know, the better programmer you become.

The Zone feels good.

When you get into The Zone, it's as if the world melts away and the only thing left is you, your instrument, and the music. Time stands still. Your fingers dance across the strings. The notes resonate with your soul. These are the moments that are most satisfying. At first it doesn't happen often, but the better you get, the more time you spend in The Zone. Programming is much the same.

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