Strategies experts use to learn programming languages

Dom Aversano

"U.S. Army Photo" from the archives of the ARL Technical Library. Left: Betty Jennings (Mrs. Bartik), right: Frances Bilas (Mrs. Spence).

Learning a programming language – not least of all one’s first language – can feel intimidating, especially when observing others doing complex tasks with apparent ease. Furthermore, the circumstances in which one learns can vary greatly. One person might be 19 years old and entering a degree program with plenty of free time, while another is moonlighting on an old computer between childcare and other responsibilities. Regardless of our circumstances, we can adopt an attitude and approach to learning that allows us to make the best use of the time we have. What follows is some advice with tips from some leading music programmers and artists. 

Enjoy learning

It might sound trite, but it is essential. It is easy to motivate ourselves to do something we love. If learning is enjoyable you will do more with greater focus and energy. Create a beautiful environment to work in, inspiring projects to develop, and desirable long-term goals that are ambitious enough to keep you practising regularly. Create the conditions in which action comes naturally, since to borrow the words of Pablo Picasso, ‘Action is the foundational key to all success.’

Some people like learning by exploring and modifying existing code written by others. I envy them because I think they move faster. However I find more pleasure in learning from the ground up so I understand every line of code in my project. My preference is to follow a tutorial (e.g. Dan Shiffman’s) and do small exercises. – Tim Murray Browne

Learn through projects

We learn by doing. Tutorials are essential, but if they are not complemented with the development of projects you might experience ‘tutorial fatigue’, losing motivation and inspiration amid a constant reel of videos. Start with simple programs you can build quickly before working up to more complex ones. Small and simple is beautiful. 

I have a folder where I document and store all my ideas for projects. I write everything down in plain language describing what the program will do without any consideration for how it will work. Only after this do I give some consideration to how the program might work architecturally, before deciding if I should create it now, wait, or simply store it as an idea. Even if I never create the project, documenting my ideas demonstrates they have a value I would not entrust to just memory.

Love the one you’re with

It is better to learn one language expertly than five shallowly. Take time to decide what you want to learn rather than impulsively jumping in, after all, you might spend thousands of hours with the program so you want it to align with your character and needs. Give yourself a realistic amount of time to learn it before embarking on another language, unless you genuinely have the time to learn languages simultaneously. 

I learned Pure Data partly because I was attracted to the way it looked. That might seem superficial but I know visual aesthetics affect me, and if I was going to look at a program for hundreds or thousands of hours I wanted to like its appearance. I now prefer traditional code, but my love for Pure Data and its black-and-white simplicity taught me to think as a coder. 

Do not worry about being mocked for asking questions – asking others for help builds relationships, strengthens the community, and can even lead to employment. If people want to put you down for asking basic questions, it says more about them than about you, so always reach out! – Elise Plans

Build a physical library

A friend who worked as a programmer for a big technology company advised me not to read books about programming, arguing that learning to program is non-linear and therefore unsuited to books. This did not work for me. We all have the same access to digital information, but physical libraries reflect our interests, priorities, and values, and act as private mental spaces. 

Although Daniel Shiffman’s books and the SuperCollider book are available for free online, I bought physical copies as I find reading from paper conducive to a quieter, less distracted, and more reflective state of mind. As it happens I often read the books in a non-linear manner, reading the chapter that seems most appealing or relevant to me at that time. My library extends out in different directions, containing musicology and biography, as well as physics and philosophy, yet all feel somehow connected. 

Read other people’s code

A revelation for most people learning to code is that there is rarely a single correct way to do something. Coding is a form of self-expression that reflects our theories and models of the world, and as with all creative activities, we eventually develop a style. Reading other people’s code gives you exposure to other approaches, allowing us to understand and even empathise with their creative world. Just as when we learn a foreign language we read books to help us, reading code allows us to internalise the grammar and style of good code. 

Music technology and programming may seem limitless in possibility – but you quickly find limitations if you step outside of conventional concepts of what music has been defined as before. So if you aren’t running up against limitations, it’s likely you aren’t thinking in a way which is original or ambitious enough. – Robert Thomas

Be wary of the promises of AI

Machine learning is impressive, but as Joseph Weizenbaum’s famous program ELIZA created at MIT in 1964-66 demonstrated, we have a potentially dangerous tendency to project mental capabilities onto machines that do not exist. 

While learning SuperCollider I used ChatGPT to help with some problems. After the initial amazement at receiving coherent responses from a machine using natural language, a more sober realisation came to me that the code often contained basic errors, invented syntax, and impractical solutions that a beginner might not recognise as such. It was obvious to me that ChatGPT did not understand Supercollider in the meaningful sense that expert programmers did. 

Machine learning is undoubtedly going to influence the world hugely, and coding not least of all, but the current models have a slick manner of offering poor code with absolute confidence. 

Photo by Robin Parmar
For mistakes that I may have made – lots of them! All the time. It’s probably cliche to say, but understanding your mistakes can be the best way to learn something. Although you come to think of them less as mistakes and more as happy accidents. Sometimes typing the “wrong” value can actually give you an interesting sound or pattern that you weren’t intending but pushes you in a new creative direction. – Lizze Wilson, Digital Selves

Hopefully, some of the ideas and advice in this article have been helpful. There are of course as many ways to learn a programming language as there are people, but regardless of the path, there is always a social element to learning and collaboration. And in that spirit, if you have any advice or ideas that you would like to share, please feel free to do so in the comments below.

A guide to seven powerful programs for music and visuals

Dom Aversano

What should I learn? A guide to seven powerful programs for music and visuals.

The British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings described an approach to learning music that reduces it down to two tasks: the first is to know what to practise, and the second is to practise it. The same approach works for coding, and though it is a simple philosophy that does not necessarily make it easy. Knowing what to practise can feel daunting amid such a huge array of tools and approaches, making it all the more important to be clear about what you wish to learn so you can then devote yourself without doubt or distraction to the task of studying.

As ever the most important thing is not the tool but the skills, knowledge, and imagination of the person using it. However, nobody wants to attempt to hammer a nail into the wall with a screwdriver. Some programs are more suited to certain tasks than others, so it is important to have a sense of their strengths and weaknesses before taking serious steps into learning them.

What follows is a summary and description of some popular programs to help you navigate your way to what inspires you most, so you can learn with passion and energy.

Pure Data

Pure Data is an open-source programming language for audio and visual (GEM) coding that was developed by Miller Puckette in the mid-1990s. It is a dataflow language where objects are patched together using cords, in a manner appealing to those who like to conceptualise programs as a network of physical objects. 

Getting started in Pure Data is not especially difficult even without any programming experience, since it has good documentation and plenty of tutorials. You can build interesting and simple programs within days or weeks, and with experience, it is possible to build complex and professional programs.

The tactile and playful process of patching things together also represents a weakness of Pure Data, since once your programs become more advanced you need increasing numbers of patch cables, and dragging hundreds – or even thousands – of them from one place to another becomes monotonous work.

Cost: free

Introductory Tutorial 

Official Website

Max/MSP/Jitter and Max for Live

Max/MSP is Pure Data’s sibling, which makes it quite easy to migrate from one program to the other, but there are significant and important differences too. The graphical user interface (GUI) for Max is more refined and allows for organising patching chords in elegant ways that help mental clarity. With Max for Live you have Max built into Ableton – bringing together two powerful programs.

Max has a big community surrounding it in which you can find plenty of tutorials, Discord channels, and a vast library of instruments to pull apart. Just as Pure Data has GEM for visualisation Max has Jitter, in which you can create highly sophisticated visuals. All in all, this represents an incredibly powerful setup for music and visuals.

The potential downsides are that Max is paid, so if you’re on a small budget Pure Data might be better suited. It also suffers from the same patch cord fatigue as Pure Data, where you can end up attaching cords from one place to another in a repetitive manner.

Cost: $9.99 per month / $399 permanent licence or $250 for students and teachers

Introductory Tutorial

Official Website

SuperCollider

SuperCollider is an open-source language developed by James McCartney that was released in 1996, and a more traditional programming language than either Pure Data or Max. If you enjoy coding it is an immensely powerful tool where your imagination is the limit when it comes to sound design, since with as little as a single line of code you are capable of creating stunning musical outputs. 

However, SuperCollider is difficult, so if you have no programming experience expect to put in many hours before you feel comfortable. Its documentation is inconsistent and written in a way that sometimes assumes a high level of technical understanding. Thankfully, there is a generous and helpful online forum that is very welcoming to newcomers, so if you are determined to learn, do not be put off by the challenge.

An area that SuperCollider is lacking in comparison to Max and Pure Data is a sophisticated built-in environment for visuals, and although you can use it to create GUIs, they do not have the same elegance as in Max.

Cost: free

Introductory Tutorial 

Official website

TidalCycles

Though built from SuperCollider, TidalCycles is nevertheless much easier to learn. Designed for the creation of algorithmic music, it is popular in live coding or algorave music. The language is intuitive and uses music terminology in its syntax, giving people with an existing understanding of music an easy way into coding. There is a community built around it complete with Discord channels and an active community blog.

The downsides to TidalCycles are the installation is difficult, and it is a somewhat specialist tool that does not have as broad capabilities as the aforementioned programs.

Cost: free

Introductory Tutorial 

Official Websit

P5JS

P5JS is an open-source Javascript library that is a tool of choice for generative visual artists. The combination of a gentle learning curve and the ease of being able to run it straight from your browser makes it something easy to incorporate into one’s life, either as a simple tool for sketching out visual ideas or as something much more powerful that is capable of generating world-class works of art.

It is hard to mention P5JS without also mentioning Daniel Shiffmen, one of the most charismatic, humorous, and engaging programming teachers, who has rightly earned himself a reputation as such. He is the authour of a fascinating book called The Nature of Code which takes inspiration from natural systems, and like P5JS is open-source and freely available. 

Cost: free

Introductory Tutorial

Official Website

Tone.js

Like P5JS, Tone.js is also a Javascript library, and one that opens the door to a whole world of musical possibilities in the web browser. In the words of its creators it ‘offers common DAW (digital audio workstation) features like a global transport for synchronizing and scheduling events as well as prebuilt synths and effects’ while allowing for ‘high-performance building blocks to create your own synthesizers, effects, and complex control signals.’

Since it is web based one can get a feel for it by delving into some of the examples on offer

Cost: free

Introductory Tutorial

Official website

TouchDesigner

In TouchDesigner you can create magnificent live 3D visuals without the need for coding. Its visual modular environment allows you to patch together modules in intuitive and creative ways, and it is easy to input midi or OSC if you want to incorporate a new visual dimension to your music. To help learn there is an active forum, live meetups, and many tutorial videos on this site. While the initial stages of using TouchDesigner are not difficult, one can become virtuosic with the option of even writing your own code in the programming language Python. 

There is a showcase of work made using TouchDesigner on their website which gives you a sense of what it is capable of.

Cost: All features $2200 / pro version $600 / free for personal and non-commercial use. 

Introductory Tutorial

Official Website

Build samplers with Max

Level Intermediate. Knowledge of Max or Pure Data is required, and some rudiments of digital audio.

In this workshop you will build both single cycle and loop based sampler devices, empowering you to utilise them in your own patches. This workshop aims to provide you with suitable skills to begin to explore building sampler devices in the Max environment.

Session Learning Outcomes

By the end of this session a successful student will be able to:

  • Identify key MSP objects for sampler devices

  • Utilise buffer and waveform objects

  • Build single cycle waveform sampler devices

  • Build loop based sampler devices

Requirements

  • A computer and internet connection

  • A good working knowledge of computer systems

  • An basic awareness of audio processing

  • Good familiarity with MSP

  • Access to a copy of Max 8 (i.e. trial or full license)

About the workshop leader


Phelan Kane is a Berlin & London based music producer, engineer, artist, developer and educator. For over twenty years he has been active in both the music industry and the contemporary music education sector, with a focus on electronic music and alternative bands.

His specialism is sound design and production techniques such as synthesis and sampling, alongside audio processing and plug-in development. His credits include collaborations with Placebo, Radiohead, Fad Gadget, Depeche Mode, Moby, Snow Patrol, Mute, Sony BMG, Universal, EMI and Warner Bros. He holds an MA in Audio Technology from the London College of Music, University of West London, an MSc in Sound & Music Computing at the Center for Digital Music at Queen Mary, University of London and in 2008 became one of the world’s first wave of Ableton Certified Trainers.

He is a member of the UK’s Music Producers Guild, holds a PG Cert in Learning & Teaching, is an Affiliate of the Institute for Learning, a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and until recently was Chairman of the London Committee for the British Section of the Audio Engineering Society. He is currently running the electronic music record label Meta Junction Recordings and the audio software development company Meta Function, which specialize in Max for Live devices releasing the M4L synth Wave Junction in partnership with Sonicstate.

DIY Electronics – Introduction to digital instrument design

During these workshops you will prototype your own instrument (hardware and software) using an Arduino microcontroller, sensors, and Max or Pure Data.

Registration includes access to all sessions.

You will be introduced to the basics of working with an Arduino microcontroller and interfacing it with a computer software in order to generate, control and manipulate sound. We will use open source hardware and software (Arduino / Max or Pure Data) to prototype an instrument using buttons, switches, potentiometers and sensors. We will start by looking at the basics such as setting up Arduino and running sketches, analog vs digital pins, Arduino programming environment, basic electronic, etc. From there we will get a bit more advanced by looking at the serial communication, connecting sensors to Arduino, reading and values from sensors, and controlling sound parameters with them.

Requirements

Beginner with notions of programming. All participants are required to have a computer with pre-installed Arduino IDE and Max or PureData.

Downloads:

Components (not included, please order):

Workshop sessions 
Session 1: introduction to Arduino: Hello World!
Basic electronic conventions
Arduino = software + hardware
Digital and analog pins
Arduino sketch structure
Running first sketch
Session 2: Hardware: Getting data from sensors
Prototyping on breadboard
Connecting sensor, potentiometer and button
Viewing data in Arduino IDE: Intro to serial monitor
Session 3: Max/ Pure Data & Serial communication
Intro to Max / Pure Data – building a simple synth
Sending serial message: Arduino side
Receiving serial  message: Max / Pure Data side
Session 4: Putting it all together
Adding control to our synth patch in Max /  Pure Data
Experimenting and playing
More advanced Max / Pure Data patches.
Wrapping up: What’s next?
About the workshop leader

Kacper Ziemianin a.k.a. ‘Ctrl Freq’ has background in classical music and a lot of adventures in modern sound and music. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Sonic Arts from Middlsex University, London and Master’s degree in Sonology at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, the Netherlands.

Instrument maker, sound designer, circuit bender, vagabond, improviser, producer, audio-hacker, nomad, radio presenter, activist, workshop leader, squatter. His audio installations and sounds have been shown/played in numerous places around, as well as outside Europe.

Currently based in the Hague, NL working as a freelance instrument designer and performer as well as teacher of DIY electronics. His latest endeavor, the ‘LightSeq’ has received funding from Stimuleringsfonds NL and won an award at an international electronic music festival ‘Radical dB’ in Zaragoza, Spain.

Follow Kacper on YouTube