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Start me up nation: The connection between music and high-tech

Start me up nation: The connection between music and high-tech

In a growing phenomenon in recent years, musicians are making the transition to high-tech - but can they find harmony between music and tech?

Maya Nahum Shaha | 11:08  30.05.2022

Musicians who are making the transition to the high-tech field is a phenomenon that has been expanding in recent years. One of the pioneers in the field is Yoni Bloch, who founded Eko a few years ago, a company which developed an interactive video platform in which the viewer chooses where the plot will go. This trend continued with other high-tech companies being founded by musicians, some in music-related fields and some in other worlds. Quite a few musicians have become programmers and development managers. Is there a structural similarity between music and programming? Do the two professions require the same character traits? And how can one explain the phenomenon that musicians who were looking for another channel to earn a living found it in this particular field?

"Music is essentially the connection between math and emotion," Bloch says. "The difference between a major chord and a minor chord is the difference in the interval of one of three sound waves playing together. It's weird and crazy and surprising that the connection is not clearer. Rhythm is a fraction (three quarters, seven eighths) and a melody is a sequence of numbers that is perceived as logical or repetitive in people for some reason. I think programmers, like other musicians and artists, are often idealistic people with a desire for perfection and influence, with the patience to invest their soul in trying things again and again until they work. When I was 4, my father bought me a Commodore 64 and my mother enrolled me in piano lessons, so I spent my childhood in Beer Sheva playing computer games and playing classical music. I really liked the connection and the abilities that open up when you combine things."

Yoni Bloch. Yoni Bloch. Yoni Bloch.

Katya Clearfield (28) knew from a young age that she wanted to be a violinist. After graduating with a bachelor's degree from the Tel Aviv University Academy of Music, she joined the Israeli Chamber Orchestra and taught music privately and at the conservatory. She has been a programmer for three years at Varonis, a company that deals with cybersecurity and big data and provides information security services to thousands of customers around the world.

"It did not happen in one day, but I realized that I needed a pivot in my life. In general, the music situation in Israel is very sad. 30% of my fellow musicians changed professions and those who succeeded as musicians, for most of them it was because they were forced to leave Israel and go abroad. The average salary for playing in an orchestra in Israel is a little above the minimum wage. In high-tech it is far above that. I started thinking, do I love music so much that I am willing to sacrifice living in Israel for it? I decided to look for something else."

Her connection to programming dates back to high school, when she studied science and mathematics in the Technion. "I spent most of my time in music, but when I thought about what I could do if not music, programming was the first idea. I enrolled in a software development course for academics."

Do you find similarities between the fields?

"Music is also a language, and it is very mathematical in perception. If you break it down to its core, in Western music the game is with seven notes and in programming with two bits (zero and one). We wrap these bits in high-end programming language for people to read, as the characters have become more readable over the years.

“There is also the emotional element. As much as a piece will be written perfectly, it can not be performed without the soul that the performer puts into it. It’s the same thing in programming, constantly striving to produce the ideal product. I want the product I develop to excite the customer. We are used to thinking that there is a dramatic leap between music and programming, but in essence it is a direct line."

Eilon Roseman (31), a programmer at Artlist, a company that provides content creators around the world with innovative video and image editing software, feels less connected to the term “career change”. "I come from a field of creation and composition and continue to do so. A lot of composers make a living from teaching or other fields in music, and some like me decide to take a day job and continue to create. At some point I decided to look for another field but I continue to define myself as a musician who creates."

He comes from the world of concerts and classical music. He has a bachelor's degree in composition from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and was already on his way to a master's degree abroad. Then the Covid-19 pandemic started and his second child was born and he worked in several teaching positions, wrote for ensembles, and accompanied a choir. "It was not my creation, but I was doing it to make a living. I was looking for a framework that would interest me and I would enjoy working in. I started experimenting with programming, with no background at all. I signed up for a bootcamp and I became a web programmer. It turned out that Artlist’s product is also related to the world I come from.”

Do you find similarities between the work processes?

"I did not think of it that way but if you go in depth, music is a world made up of orderly rules and a whole system. The world of theory has its own internal logic, and at the academic level it’s dealing with things reminiscent of logic questions. I do not look and approach music like that every day, but you could say that behind the scenes there is a similar logic. On the other hand, the field I deal with is construction, and I find a bit of a loose connection between it and musical creation. When you write an orchestration, you sometimes deal with solving problems or thinking."

Shai Tubul, a senior software developer at Soluto, the Israeli development center of the American tech care giant Asurion, realized from a young age that a livelihood from music would not be easy to find and signed up for computer studies. "As a high school student in Eilat, I thought it was possible to conquer the world and pretty quickly realized that this was not happening, but music is my great love. In high school we formed a band, in the army I continued to play (electric guitar) at the base and today I am in Soluto’s band."

It turns out that many high-tech companies boast their own band made up of employees. "People have hobbies and not everyone can turn them into a profession and choose other paths. High-tech companies have found it appropriate to give an opportunity to those who want to express themselves and the company uses the band at company events,” explained Tubul.

“Both in making music and writing code you have the ability to express yourself and create. There is the basic pattern - in music it is notes and in programming lines of code and spaces - and you have to give them a twist. Both areas are mentally challenging, help develop creativity, and outside the box thinking. When you work on a piece of music or a piece of software, the experience and training lead to ever-improving results."

Tomer Lahav (37), who lives in New York, is the director of the research and development center at Eko and a guitarist in Bloch's band (when he is in Israel), and studied programming at Tel Aviv College.

"With me, programming and music started together at the age of 10, and I think there are many parallels between the song building process and the software building process. Both need a strong foundation. In software that means good architecture and in a song it needs a good skeleton. The construction process is very iterative. When you build a song, the band plays it in the rehearsal room and the song is constantly evolving and changing, so too with software. When you hear the finished product (album or song) you do not know that it has gone through a lot of versions and sounds different at different stages.

“Another thing is the identification of patterns. Music has all kinds of paraphrases and the software tries to write a generic code that solves a problem in the most patterned way. Also working in a software team and playing in a band with other people is similar, it teaches you to be present and attentive to your friends. When you produce music that sounds good, the satisfaction is great, just as when you run your code and it works."

Lahav understood from the beginning that he would not be able to make a living from music in Israel and has always invested in his two passions. "This is what I’ve liked to do since I was a child. I had sleep disorders, so at night I would program because it could be done alone in front of a computer. That's how it all started."

Yariv Gottlieb (58) dabbled in computers even before music. He plays guitar, is a lyricist, composer and singer and was a member of the band Jacques Mirage who released an unsuccessful album in 1997 and in July they will mark 25 years since its release at The Zone club in Tel Aviv. Ten years after the band disbanded he performed alone, left the world of programming and moved on to writing for Israeli television ("The Champion", "Night Club"). A few years ago he returned and today he is the head of the development team at the company Shekel.

"It's hard to spot it from the outside but programming is creation," says Gottlieb. "There is a riddle that needs to be solved and the way to do that is through creation. It is to build, to look ahead, to see what will work and what will cause what. To be on a certain level of programming one needs a soul of a creator and think outside the box. Code writing technique and songwriting technique are not the same thing, but there is something in the creation that makes it possible to imagine. As a creator, I am sort of building the algorithm of the song, sorting out the puzzle. This is something that is also true for people who write code. I know a lot of people who have moved from music to high-tech or whose hobby in high-tech is music and they play music together once a week."

Yair Klartag, a programmer at the JoyTunes company that develops an app for learning to play music, has found a way to combine the two worlds. He began playing keyboards and piano at the age of 10 and has a combined bachelor’s degree in computer science and music, a master’s degree in composition from Switzerland and a doctorate in composition from Columbia University. "I compose contemporary classical music, a sub-genre not very popular in Israel, music for orchestral instruments sometimes with electronic means." Most of the time he works with chamber ensembles, the Berlin and Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestras, and the Munich and Geneva Chamber Orchestras.

"I do not feel there is a structural resemblance between music and programming, I do feel that engaging in sound is something abstract that can not be kneaded, music is waves in the air that can not be touched. So when I imagine it abstract there are few things similar to math and computers, and beyond that, these are two different worlds."

Klartag did not come to high-tech just for livelihood reasons. "I love the world of computers and all these years I worked in programming both out of love, and also from a place where I work in a not very popular classical musical world that does not have a lot of money and I did not want to compromise. From the age of 21 I have worked in the field in different shapes and forms. The natural thing for me was to be in the world of math and computers, and music is the individualistic pursuit to find myself."

Neta Maimon, a researcher in musical cognition and a lecturer in the School of Psychology and Music at Tel Aviv University, provides the research angle. "I guess there were those who said that there is an inherent connection between mathematics and programming and music, there are weights and pitches of sound that can be paralleled. Empirical reality on the other hand tells us no. I am referring mainly to research concerning the link between mathematical abilities and cognitive abilities and music studies. If there is a close connection then one should see in someone who learns to play, empowerment in the fields of mathematics and the like. The professional literature shows that correlation does not indicate causality. It's not necessarily the music that gave them the tools to program better. Some of the original musicians are probably also better at programming, or they have the potential."

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And yet there are elements in the personality that are characteristic of both areas. "A professional musician who has made a career shift is probably a super professional. Someone who for years has played and rehearsed for hours over and over again, in the first place has a personality that can persevere in front of a computer and check each comma, dot, and line in code. Second, these are perfectionists who want to do their job best. At least in the classical music world it's strong, from a young age, it’s a competitive world that tells you what to do. Another thing is that most of those who come to these worlds in the first place come from a certain socioeconomic status and probably studied in schools where the teaching of mathematics was good. There may be people who even if they were not playing on anything, by virtue of their personality structure and place of residence, would in any case be going to learn programming. Musicians are definitely more creative and there is causality and perseverance."

Maimon herself was a cellist for many years. She is a graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music, and she also played with popular Israeli musician Dudu Tassa. "At Thelma Yellin I increased my studies in physics and mathematics because I was strong on the scientific side as well and enjoyed the combination of the two. When I went to study a degree in cello, focusing on the instrument did not do me good. Performing a classical piece required sitting for hours and practicing alone in a Sisyphean manner and I could not reach the required technical maximum because I could not sit and focus. I moved to the Lautman Interdisciplinary Program for Outstanding Students at Tel Aviv University, I did two master's degrees - in musicology and cognitive psychology. I love and live music and am attracted to science, and in musical cognition I combine the two.”

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