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Music with Coders, The Case for Arts Education, and Reflecting on Charles and Ray Eames

Navigating the Crisis - December 2021 EditionISSUE 9 • December 2019 | Erin Gold, Joseph H. Kluger, Alan Brown, Dr. Thomas Wolf, Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf, Alan Kline, Kathleen Hill

Exploring the World of Charles and Ray Eames
Exploring the World of Charles and Ray Eames
Image: Megan Friel

This issue of On Our Minds features learnings from focus groups on music with coders, thoughts on making the case for arts education for children, and a reflection on an exhibition on Charles and Ray Eames.

Alan Brown, Can Music Influence Software Code?
Steven Holochwost, Making Arguments for Arts Education: Meeting Them on Their Own Turf
Megan Friel, Exploring the World of Charles and Ray Eames

Can Music Influence Software Code?
By Alan Brown

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to conduct focus group research with groups of software coders. It was part of a larger study commissioned by University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, Michigan as part of a Wallace Foundation Building Audiences for Sustainability grant. The research sought to explore potential connections between technology firms and artists doing particularly innovative or adventurous work. We recruited two groups of coders from different software development firms, and a third group of workers in product design and marketing positions. The discussions focused on probing the creative process of the coders, and the similarities and dissimilarities between their process and the process that artists use to create original work.

The results are still bouncing around my head years later.

Of particular note were the analogies respondents made between writing code and composing music. Blocks of code are repeated, as in music. Good code is “elegant” and, yes, “beautiful.” At one firm, code is conceptualized using stories and characters to reduce complexity and humanize a technological idea.

Moreover, I was struck by the coders’ sophisticated understanding of their creative process. They work in teams, and switch collaborators on a regular basis to allow for cross-fertilization of ideas. When they run out of ideas, they go to the “whiteboard” – which they know as a metaphorical blank canvas where they can brainstorm without judgement and take risks without negative consequences.   

But what really struck me, as I walked through their large, open offices with scores of workstations, was that most were wearing headphones and listening to music while they were writing code. In the focus groups, I asked, “what kind of music do you listen to?” and heard a wide range of answers, particularly hypnotic music without lyrics such as “electronica” and “trance.” It struck me then, as it does now, that whole sectors of our economy depend on what music these young coders are listening to. They expressed little interest in buying tickets to watch artists perform, but keen interest in interacting with artists if it meant they’d learn something that would enrich their creative process.

While contemporary artists have long explored technological intersections with their work, it seems that arts organizations and technology firms, for the most part, have yet to find the fertile territory where true collaboration is possible. It might just be that artists have as much to learn from coders as coders have to learn from artists. I would love to see a program that places artists in residence in technology firms, and a mirror-image program that places coders in residence in music composition and other artistic training programs.

Then, we really must get to the bottom of how different kinds of music affect the work of coders. Would it be possible to give similarly experienced coders the same coding task, but have them listen to different kinds of music, in order to see if the results vary? I have to imagine that code written while listening to improvisational jazz will differ from code written to electronic trance music at 140 beats per minute. What role does repetition play? When is it advantageous to switch tempos and styles? What if teaching artists worked with coders to help them find the music that best frees their mind? What if playwrights facilitated teams of coders in building the architecture of their code through narrative? What if a professional DJ curated the music that coders listen to every day, shaping their work experience with musical twists and turns?

Making Arguments for Arts Education: Meeting Them on Their Own Turf
By Dr. Steven Holochwost

Recently I was asked to participate in a panel at the Mason Arts Research Center (MasonARC) at George Mason University, one of the Research Labs funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. One of my fellow panelists related her experience as a member of a group of representatives from different federal agencies devoted to children’s development and well-being. She noted that as one of the few representatives from a federal organization devoted to the arts, she was often hard-pressed to offer evidence for the benefits of arts education for children that her fellow representatives would accept. In these situations, her approach was to argue that many of these benefits could not be measured through reductionist means. 

While this is no doubt true, it is unlikely to convince the hard-nosed policy analysts that are employed by federal agencies. A more fruitful approach may be to meet those analysts on their own terms.

One way to do this is to refer those analysts to the substantial and growing body of empirical evidence drawn from rigorous studies that testify to the benefits of arts education for children. Staying abreast of the more recent research in this area and differentiating levels of rigor is a full-time job. Fortunately, there are a number of online repositories of arts education research that are regularly updated and that are curated to include only those studies that meet a certain standard for evidence (see, for example, ArtsEdSearch, maintained by the Arts Education Partnership). 

Perhaps the most promising approach would be to meet skeptics on their own terms. Acknowledge that, in its present state, the literature regarding the benefits of arts education for children has gaps and weaknesses. However, note that the same is true about the literature regarding the benefits of other forms of education, and particularly the literature regarding the benefits of non-arts based extra-curricular and out of school time programs. 

In fact, one of the chief limitations of this literature is common to the arts education literature as well: for researchers to examine the benefits of extra-curricular and out of school time programs on children, whether arts based or not, requires that children receive those programs. Given inequalities in the distribution of educational opportunities for children, those programs are more likely to be received by more racially homogenous and affluent children. As a result, those advocating for the expansion of these programs are at a disadvantage, one that we should make common cause to redress: we know the least about the effects of programs, arts or otherwise, for precisely those children who may benefit from those programs the most.

Exploring the World of Charles and Ray Eames
By Megan Friel

I am currently in the process of furnishing a new home and as my inner artist runs wild, my husband kindly reminds me that at least some of the items in our home should be functional in addition to being beautiful. In these moments, I have been thinking back to an exhibit on Charles and Ray Eames that I saw at the Oakland Museum of California. 

My colleague, John Carnwath, had written about his experience taking his young children to the exhibit shortly before I attended myself. I had the spirit of play and exploration that he had written about in mind as I entered with a different crowd, my father and my sister. The exhibit included furniture and videos created by Charles and Ray Eames and the wall text described their creative process and the philosophy behind their approach. The exhibit also included more surprising elements, tucked away in corners or behind projection screens were tables with toys they had designed, oversized tops, or beautiful kaleidoscopes with quiet invitations to play. 

Despite having several decades on John’s children, I found myself spending thirty focused minutes trying to perfect a sculpture built out of oversized playing cards. The cards were beautiful but also carefully designed to interlock to allow for the construction of large structures and fabricated from a cardstock with just the balance of flexibility and strength needed for curving walls. When I finally looked up from my project, I saw my dad and sister whirling in spinning tops. They were testing the limit of their balanced structure by pushing them a bit further each time. Not five minutes later, an interview printed on the wall inspired a deep discussion with my dad, a photographer who has spent much of his career in the commercial space, about the boundary between art and design. 

As we walked out of the exhibition, hours later than I had expected us to emerge, I was struck by the design of the exhibit itself and the way that it gracefully paired play and philosophy. It allowed visitors to see design thinking in action, to try it on, iterating the design of their own fantastical construction. This insight into process provided the context needed to celebrate the beauty and intellect behind the seemingly simple pieces on display from the Eames’ catalog of work. Reading about the exhibition later I learned that this seemingly effortless melding of curiosity, joy, beauty, and intellect was, of course, carefully designed. 

The curator of the exhibition wrote, “Ray and Charles Eames have changed the world of design, creating beautiful work that is both stylish and functional in our everyday lives,” I will keep the Eames’ in mind for inspiration as I continue my own search for functional beauty.