Learning the Cliches Idioms of Our Craft

I recently discovered Seth Godin and started to follow his blog. In one of his recent posts he explains about taste and how successful creators are later emulated because of the greatness in their work.

Taste is the ability to select, combine and create experiences that the tribe likes–before they know that they like it.

The other difficult work: understanding that your standards might not be the standards of the tribe you’re seeking to connect with. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s in bad taste. If the market respects the creator, takes action and then adopts the work, it’s in good taste.

What’s interesting about Godin’s thoughts on the matter is how much it reflects in other areas. It reminds me of something one of my music professors, from my music school days, had once discussed in music theory.

I remember him asking the class, “What makes Beethoven great? What makes Mozart great? What makes Bach great?” He was asking why do we remember these composers and not others from their time. He said it was because they knew the cliches of the music that was being written in their era. They knew what was expected. They knew what sonata-allegro from was. They knew symphony had 4 movements. They knew all of this. They knew the cliches (albeit some would use the safer word, ‘idioms’).

With this knowledge, they were able to transcend those expectations and push boundaries. Symphony Number 5 in c minor? Ha! It triumphantly ends in C major.

Despite what popular movies show you, great composers then and now do not wait for the Hand of God to touch them on the shoulder and say “You can now write your Symphony, now go.” Great composers experimented. They knew the language of music and its idioms and from this they were able to push boundaries. People hated Beethoven’s late string quartets when he created them. They despised them. Today, in hindsight, we recognize these late quartets as Beethoven’s journey into new musical territory. He pushed past so much what was expected of him and music to the point his audience no longer understood.

So how do we journey into something new if we do not know where the boundaries of our own domain exist? As software developers and creators in any endeavor, we have to not only learn our cliches and our idioms, but also to question the way we do things. Only then do we break new into new ground.

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