The Beatles of Programming Languages

By Eric Larson
December 18, 2008 | Comments: 20

As a musician and a programmer, I'm constantly drawing relationships between the two activities. My wife, who I play music with, has been the recipient of the the vast majority of these comparisons and asked me the other day, "Is C the Beatles of programming languages?"

I thought about it for a minute and said, "Yes, I suppose C is the Beatles of programming languages."

Needless to say this got me thinking. One aspect of the Beatles that I personally enjoy is the sounds of their recordings. The White Album, for example, has some of the most amazingly warm tones I've ever heard. At the same time, many of their songs are raw and simple. Helter Skelter is really "close to the metal", yet its power has stood the test of time. C is very similar. It is still considered one of the most important programming languages today and expresses a rawness that is often missed in modern dynamic languages such as explicit memory management.

This being a rather fun exercise, I considered what band I could relate to my language of choice, Python. I came up with Nirvana because of how Python has become popular in spite of itself. With Python's rise to prominence the develop community has always kept the same ideals and stayed true to the Zen of Python. This adherence to its roots is very similar to Nirvana as their career was about making music and not catering to the industry.

It really is interesting to look at the parallels within software and music. The classical vs. pop debate is very similar to functional vs. object oriented programming. Signing to a major label feels very familiar to taking millions in venture capital. A developer in the zone is very similar to when a song just comes together. I'm not sure how far you can take these comparisons, but it is fun either way.

So, what band is your favorite programming language?

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I guess that makes Perl "The Grateful Dead", the band that was open source before FLOSS was cool. []

Nice comparison!
So what is the John Lennon of C? I think pointers.

Yeah, John Lennon isn't just a pointer, he's a void pointer least "Imagine."

I'm not sure Nirvana is a good analogy for Python... unless Python is about to lose it's most important part and break apart then spend years in court fighting Ruby for rights some of it's old IP.

How is this for an analogy: PHP as Nickelback. Everyone's used it and many still do, but it's no longer cool to admit to it.

Groovy might be Green Day. Highly derivative of those that came before it, but put together in a very fun assessable way.

Haskell would be microtonal music composed by Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Perl = The Cure
Been around a long time, venerable;
can be different things to different people,
engages in different styles, but always solid;
can be messy and noisy, e.g., "Give Me It!"

Inapt. Perl is The Beatles, C is Chuck Berry. COBOL is Pat Boone.

...and malloc() is the Ringo Starr of C.

@snoopy, @EH: The Cure and The Beatles didn't spend 10 years on a difficult 6th album.

keith richards is kind of like cobol. they only employ his services when they absolutely have to and if it weren't for his beating heart, you'd sweat he was dead.

I think Perl is like Bob Dylan: inspired a lot of people but you will get the dirty look if you admit you still listen to it.

C is like Jimi Hendrix: very flexible, can range from blues to very edgy heavy metal and everything in between therefore giving you a lot of freedom but if you abuse it, you might overdose.

PHP is like Pearl Jam: once upon the time they were cool, now they are just showing off.

I think Smalltalk could be the Velvet Underground.
It is said that everyone that heard the VU went out to do their own band. Probably everyone that played with Smalltalk went out to write their own language.
It was ahead of its time and very much against the trends.

Unfortunately, I think Ruby is more like Hendrix. Very, very good. Fun, makes you feel good, but sometimes it's too flashy.

I think Perl is like Sol Invictus or Current 93. It has everything to be on the tops, but it not well understood and it doesn't want to, it wants to be an arcane cult.

Python, to me, is like Talking Heads. Instead of flowery poetry and goth complexification it goes straight to the heart of things, very elegantly and it makes you see things as they are with this painfully simple logic (after a Talking Heads song I usually think, this is so simply put and true, I'm a fool to think otherwise).

@AxiomShell, I agree with your SmallTalk comparison, but not with anything else. Simplicity is not the essence of the Talking Heads, although it is one of their attributes...

Perl is (still) the glue holding the universe together, unfortunately. It is Bach.

C is, yes, The Beatles. (C++ is probably The Doors.)

Fortran is Bob Dylan. Lisp might be Frank Sinatra. Cobol is Mitch Miller.

Python is Menudo. PHP is The Grass Roots.

Ruby is monks chanting. (Rails is a vow of silence, judging by the animosity in that particular community.)

Assembly language is you with a guitar.

Smalltalk is the Beatles
When both first came out you had split reaction of "Wow!" from the young crowd and "What the hell is this crap" from the older crowd. Now when you look back so much of what you see in music and computing was influenced by the Beatles and Smalltalk.

COBOL is Les Paul. Been around forever. He was master of the electric guitar when Hendrix was in diapers. COBOL was enterprise before most of you learned a programming language. Everyone is still surprised both are still running well. Also name a major rock band, that never touched a Les Paul guitar and same with enterprise and COBOL.

If you think of The YardBirds as Bell Labs (why not it produced Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page), then C is Led Zepplin. Powerful, flexible, unforgettable but be careful or you also can die in your own vomit.

I think of Perl as "Weird Al" Yankovic. A funny leader. Language looks funny, and it noticeably flexible but when you give it a closer look you see how much cleverness and intelligence is in the whole package.

Have to disagree - Nirvana did not "become popular in spite of itself." They intended on being one of the biggest bands in the world, which makes Cobain's suicide because of his success more tragic (in the classical-literature sort of way).

For more on Nirvana and their success:


I realize there is a set of people who suggest Nirvana's ambitions were calculated towards commercial success. Really though, I'd be wary to suggest that a band like Nirvana was actually so calculated. The Sex Pistols are a good example of a band that were essentially placed together to shake things up, but Nirvana grew organically. I read an article similar to the one you mentioned that stated Nirvana effectively networked by hanging out with people from the Melvins, which helped launching their career. This seems logical from a business point of view, but the reality is that an association with Melvins doesn't translate into major label success. It seems much more likely that they just liked each others music and felt associated with the same scene.

I'm not saying that they were not trying to become popular. I don't know of any band that doesn't desire some level of success. I'm also not saying that Nirvana wasn't successful in this regard, as it is obvious that both Nirvana and the Foo Fighters have managed to be effective garnering the attention of fans and critics. My point is that Nirvana managed to excel far beyond their ideals level of success due to the quality of work.

Just my two cents!

COBOL is the Beatles - Very cool in the '60's. Still making a ton of money today...

Fortran is Genesis. Overly complex. A walking trainwreck...

RPG is David Bowie. Complex. Yet elegant.

C is Bob Dylan.

C++ is Bruce Springstein.

Java is RunawayDorothy...

It's not my favorite language, but I'll compare Java to U2, that isn't my favorite band either, in fact, I don't like U2 at all (I even totally dislike Bono, and that shitty music they play), but they are enough 'good' (and by this I mean, massive/standard) & popular to be around here for a while, they're rich&famous, they help the poor & nature (lately sun has released some open source social projects), both have enough resources to adapt to changes in the industry.

C# would be like Radiohead, you can do everything with these two...

Python, is like that great band that doesn't exist yet or I haven't heard of... I'm thinking in Television right now... or Mahavishnu Orchestra I don't know...

Java is like Britney Spears. Commercial, hated by purists, largely fake, but for some reason is rather popular with a lot of people.

BASIC is Status Quo. Simple, been around for years, you find versions of it everywhere, but it's still AWESOME!

Pascal is the Rolling Stones - came from the same origin as C (Beatles), however is more tailored to fans of BASIC.

FORTRAN is Chuck Berry - the origin of the Rock'n'Roll languages, but not given credit in its own right anymore.

VB would be hip-hop stuff. I won't provide an analogy, but you know I'm right ;)

Perl is Pearl Jam.

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