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Let's Reconsider That
Does Math Belong in Music?
by Michael Feathers
November 24, 2005
Okay, so Turkey Day is tomorrow. It's time for a frivolous, non-software related blog. Or not. I could tie software in at the last moment to keep things on topic. I usually do. We'll see how it goes.


People close to me know that one of my great passions is music. It's private passion because I don't know many people who like the same kind of music that I do. I don't know what happened to me, but most of what I listen to is way off the beaten path. Yet it comes back in mysterious ways.

The other day, I recieved a book about one of my favorite bands, a band named Soft Machine. Soft Machine was a quirky band that started out in about 1968 playing psychedelic pop. Then it went through a very adventurous phase melding modal jazz, modern classical music (most notably Terry Riley), and rock in an original way. It was the most curious mix of smoothness and sublime beauty with angularity and dissonance imaginable (think fuzz bass at about 150 decibels). After that period, Soft Machine sauntered off into jazz/rock fusion and released its death hiccup in the late 1970s.

That description probably doesn't sound like much to you if you don't know who they were, but the band has quite wide following, and they were very influential in avant-garde rock circles (as small as they are). They were truly a unique band.

So, why am I writing about them here? I guess it's because I've been trying to understand them for a long time. I was introduced to their music via an album of theirs called 'Third.' To this day, it's still their best known album. I didn't think much of it when I first heard it. It starts out with a track called 'Facelift', that consists of screechy sounds coaxed out of a distorted Lowrey organ and mutates into into this sax melody line in an odd angular meter. The next few tracks are sort of jazzy. Most of it is instrumental except for one long track that has vocals by their drummer, Robert Wyatt. He doesn't have much of a voice, or so I thought when I first heard it. Over time, it's lost its edge, and like the rest of the music, become something magical. How do you describe that? I don't know. What I do know, though, is that I'm not alone in this. If you pull up the reviews on Amazon of this CD and the CDs before and after (Volume 2 and Fourth), you find plenty of people who consider this period something of a pinnacle. I've seen several comments by people on the net who say that they've listened to Third at least once each week for the past twenty years. Gee, I'm glad I'm not alone. To call it an 'desert island disc' for me is an understatement.

So, it's neat to like this thing, this music, and to know that there others that do too. But it makes me wonder about taste, objectivity, and subjectivity. What am I hearing that so many others don't. What makes it different from, say, a disposable piece of music that excites people for a while and then just disappears? Maybe it isn't. Maybe there are Milli Vanilli cults out there. But, I know there is something different here. There's some generally agreement in this little niche community (avant-rock) that the Softs were at the top of the heap, so to speak.

The world has a lot of timeless music. And somehow, I have the feeling that math is behind a lot of it. It's pretty easy to hear the math in classical music. In a very wide sense, math is the study of patterns and there is a lot of music out there that can give you a real kick if you can discern its patterns. They are definitely there in Soft Machine's music.

Some of the melodies fold back on themselves, starting one way and ending in a backwards version of themselves, or, at times, they start out in a straightforward way, but then they change suddenly and sound like gravity is pulling them upward rather than downward. A melody starts, stops, and then starts again in another way as if the composer changed his mind several times over the course of the line. The funny thing is that anyone could do this sort of thing as a trick, and I guess as a programmer, I'm programmed to love this sort of thing, to love well-oiled complexity that points to an inner simplicity, but there's something special in this music, particularly in the compositions by the primary composer in the early days, a guy named Mike Ratledge. He's somewhat of a reclusive genius. He enjoyed his time with the Softs but then dropped out of music and composing altogether. His melodies and harmonies are pretty strange stuff, but in a way, not strange at all. I don't think you have to know what's going on to connect with it, but then I'm not sure.

I haven't had much success turning people onto this music. Maybe it hits some people viscerally on the first listen, but I haven't encountered that yet. You might have to wallow around in the edges of rock and jazz for a while before you're ready. Maybe you need to have been bathed in some dissonant music for a while so that it doesn't put you off when it's used in this music for contrast. I hope not, because if it's true, the audience for this stuff will just die away.

So, I got the book about Soft Machine the other day. It's called Out-Bloody-Rageous and it was written by Graham Bennett. I learned much more about the band than I had in my digging around for information over the years, but one thing I didn't know is that one of their later bassists, Steve Cook, quit music and went back to school for Computer Science. He works for Microsoft now, and I think he's the Steve Cook who's been involved in their Software Factory and DSL work (but I'm not sure, I've heard there are several Steve Cooks at MS).

I mentioned this to a friend of mine, Brian Button, who consults at MS and he asked me to give him a recommendation for some Soft Machine. So, here I am, feeling like a pusher, trying to figure out how to hook him, thinking about the pieces I could tell him to listen to, but knowing that, well, they could just as easily put him off..

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About the Blogger

Michael has been active in the XP community for the past five years, balancing his time between working with, training, and coaching various teams around the world. Prior to joining Object Mentor, Michael designed a proprietary programming language and wrote a compiler for it, he also designed a large multi-platform class library and a framework for instrumentation control. When he isn't engaged with a team, he spends most of this time investigating ways of altering design over time in codebases.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2005 Michael Feathers. All rights reserved.

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