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July 01 2011

Music and lyrics and code

If the popularity of Geek Choir at various tech-related conferences is any indication, there's a substantial correlation between producing music — whether vocally or with an instrument — and coding.

Michael Brewer (@operatic), application programmer specialist at the University of Georgia and a speaker at OSCON 2011, got the official Geek Choir sessions started at the Open Source Bridge and O'Reilly OSCON conferences. In a recent interview, he discussed how the choir came about and how music and coding complement each other.

How do music and technical aptitude intersect?

MichaelBrewer.jpgMichael Brewer: Since Geek Choir got accepted, I've been hearing a lot of anecdotal evidence of a high crossover between music and geek aptitude. Of course, people have been talking about the math-music connection since "Gödel, Escher, Bach." Recent studies have again shown connections between early exposure to music and math ability, although it's not exactly what we think of as the "Mozart Effect."

I tend to view it as a combination of pattern recognition and the ability to organize and reproduce thoughts about larger, more abstract concepts and their executions. Also, the production of sound using tools at hand — including vocal chords — is similar, in a sense, to producing code with software or hacking other projects.

We are a species that bonds with our tools in unusual ways. Correlation doesn't prove causation, though — there's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem in figuring out if geeks are good at music or if musicians are good at being geeks.

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What is a "Geek Choir," and how did it get started?

Michael Brewer: I attended several OSCONs in the early-to-mid 2000s. I noticed several music jam sessions, as well as the popularity of the Gibson guitar booth in the exhibit hall one year. Folks were jamming on those guitars for hours.

At the first Open Source Bridge Conference, I suggested a Geek Choir session for the "unconference" on the last day. We started with fairly few people, but once we started singing — and people in the halls heard us and "voted with their feet" — we more than tripled our attendance in 15 minutes. The next year, Geek Choir made it into the OSBridge main conference. We had a very successful and enjoyable session, mixing experienced singers with absolute newbies.

In your OSCON session description, it says there's no advanced prep for the session choirs — why did you decide to go that route, and what benefits does a no-prep environment create?

Michael Brewer: It makes it easier on the newbies if everyone is getting introduced to the music at the same time. Also, it means that I have to be sure in my preparation to select music that is both accessible for inexperienced singers and worthwhile for experienced musicians. It's a good engineering challenge.

What are some tips for putting together a Geek Choir?

Michael Brewer: Here's a few:

  • Be welcoming and respectful. Everyone can contribute, even if they have never sung in public before or don't read music.
  • Choose — or compose — music that can be done by a mix of voices, both in terms of range and skill level. Parts can be done, but they have to be fairly straightforward to pick up. Shape note songs are good for this, as they were specifically engineered to (a) be easily learned by the (somewhat) untrained American choirs of the late 1700s and early 1800s, and (b) be performed with mixed genders on the various lines — sopranos and tenors would both sing the melody, for example, and altos and basses the bass parts, at comfortable octaves for each.
  • Stay in the public domain when you can. There are some tremendous repositories of music, including the Choral Public Domain Library and the International Music Score Library Project.
  • Have a great time!

There are a variety of open source tools for arranging music. Which do you recommend?

Michael Brewer: In general, there are two types of music composition software: music sequencers, which work with manipulating and combining blocks of sounds (sequences) into larger musical works, and notation software, which deals primarily in written or printed music.

Wonderful music is created with either. I generally work with notation software, so I'm much more familiar with notation editors. In this arena, everyone is chasing the main two commercial products — Finale (which I use) and Sibelius. For a long time, the open source tools weren't really comparable, in terms of ease of use, but MuseScore has really closed the gap. There's also LilyPond. I haven't worked with it yet, but I've heard good things about it.

What similarities, if any, do you see in the communal qualities of music and the communities that grow around open source projects?

Michael Brewer: There are several:

  • Both are groups of people coming together to create something, be it software or music.
  • There is artistry in the finished product for both. Code is most definitely art.
  • People vote with their feet for both, in terms of joining and leaving.
  • Coming together to work on common tasks builds connections and solidarity among the members. They tend to view themselves as a collective, giving themselves an identity as part of a larger whole.


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