VII.14 The joys of music

子在齐闻韶,三月不知肉味,日,不图为乐之至于斯也。– 论语,七:十四

The Master heard the shao in Ch’i and for three months did not notice the taste of the meat he ate. He said, ‘I never dreamt that the joys of music could reach such heights.’ — Analects VII.14 (Lau)

When Ataturk said “There is no revolution without music,” he had a very specific type of music in mind. The founder of modern Turkey had already brought and led the country through extraordinary change, from wars through ways to dress through the structure of government. At least in Andrew Mango’s interpretation, adoption of the European classical music tradition could then stand as a culmination of that national modernization, a sign that Turkey had arrived.

For Confucius, too, music had moral and political weight as well as aesthetic. Harmony was of great importance to him as a political theorist and as a system designer. Different components work together in harmonious co-operation in a well-built system. Confucius saw a well-functioning state working the same way: for example in XII.11, when everyone from the ruler on knows their place in the system, they can work together.

Carol Michaelson and Neil Macgregor link Confucius’ sense of harmony with the grand bronze ceremonial bells of the Spring and Autumn Period 春秋时代. These were large, expensive, technically sophisticated objects, only within the reach of a lord of a state. We can even imagine this institutional sound being the rather austere music Confucius so enjoyed, though it could have equally been zithers and pan pipes on a more intimate scale.

It’s a very personal, visceral, human reaction captured here, with senses overwhelmed by an aesthetic experience. It shows this reaction to the harmony of a system – a system of instruments in this case – as an intuitive one. It’s also a refined sense. Confucius is, amongst other things, a music critic and a censor, as in XV.11, where he says “Banish the tunes of Cheng” 放郑声远.

This intuitive, trained, sense of how a system is assembled is of great value to a software developer. Kent Beck used the term Code Smell to refer to the sense something could be improved in a piece of software, based on a relatively short aquaintance with the code. Confucians have an auditory metaphor, rather than an olfactory one, but the idea of aesthetic cues for system building coming from non-conscious sources is the same. Code smells focus on the dischordant elements. Conversely, code can sing. The fix is in, everything compiles without warnings, the unit tests and acceptance tests are green, you deploy and run cleanly in production; the joys of software can reach such heights.

[B]elatedly we need to tell you that the musical ensemble would have been a happier mataphor[.] — DeMarco and Lister, Peopleware

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