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Why learning PHP is like learning the violin – with one big difference

Knowing where to start when learning to code can be difficult. PHP is a viable option, but there are a few things you should know first.
iStock / Igor Kell
iStock / Igor Kell
Andrea Tallarita
Andrea Tallarita

Learning how to code is really not very different from learning how to play music. Both are creative disciplines which demand commitment and practice; in both cases, learners will be faced with an immensely vast field, and will have to choose a specific starting point within it – pick an instrument, pick a genre, pick a community, in accordance with what you are trying to do and be.

The musical analogy seems especially on point when it comes to PHP. There is a popular misconception that PHP is dated (or even ‘dying’) and that newcomers to code would do better to start their learning journey with newer languages like Python or Javascript. In fact, this is almost exactly the same as arguing that newcomers to music should not learn an ‘obsolete’ instrument like the violin, but should play piano or guitar instead. In both cases, the argument is flat-out wrong.

Within a much smaller timeframe, PHP really is to code what the violin is to music. Both have been the primary instrument of choice for a very long time, but have recently been overshadowed by more fashionable competitors; both have a comparatively narrow range, but are supremely powerful and flexible within that range; and both have continued to evolve and expand in surprising ways that are often overlooked.

If you’re thinking of learning how to code, and you’re wondering whether PHP is right for you, then imagine yourself as someone who wants to become a musician and is given a violin. Here are just some of the reasons why they are similar – as well as one very important reason why they are not!

#1 It’s a powerful instrument

The violin doesn’t allow you to be the base to your own melody, like the piano, and it has only four strings against the guitar’s six. But its bow allows much closer modulation of the notes, which can also be plucked, and there are no frets on its neck. All of this means that the violin can’t be used quite as widely, but where it can be used, it allows for performances of sublime subtlety.

Likewise, PHP is very distinctly a programming language for back-end web development, and will not be optimal for someone who doesn’t want to work in that field. Stay within those parameters, however, and it’s a fast, flexible tool that will let you implement almost anything. It is exceptionally syntax-rich, and, having been around for a quarter-century (practically an aeon in tech terms), it comes with an almost overwhelming amount of third-party libraries and frameworks – including the tremendously popular Laravel.

As importantly, much like the violin found new venues and sounds beyond Classical music by expanding into genres like country, blues, folk and fusion, so has PHP powered forward on its own steady path of evolution. A great deal of older websites are built on PHP 7.1, or even some iteration of PHP 5, and whenever a young programmer complains about the language, odds are they’ll be referring to an outdated version. But as of late November 2020 we are on PHP 8, which is significantly faster, more powerful, and more versatile than its predecessors. Expect even more evolution as time goes by – PHP 8.1 is due before the end of 2021!

#2 You will never be out of a job

Violins are necessary, if not central, to over 200 years of musical repertoire. A good violin player can find employment in a Classical orchestra anywhere in the world, but they can also play in modern bands, record scores for films or games, sail the seas with cruise ships, play at weddings and Christmas concerts, or simply wing it with street performances. The violin has a place almost everywhere.

For its part, PHP is used in the make-up of an astounding 79% of the web. It provides the building blocks for every major CMS out there – WordPress, Drupal, Magento, TYPO3, Joomla, PHPBB. You will find it holding together the screws and bolts of Facebook, Wikipedia, Pinterest, and dozens of millions of other websites. This sort of ubiquitousness online makes of PHP a fantastic skill to have for freelance work.

It’s no less useful for direct employment. Since PHP is used for so many frameworks (eg. the aforementioned Laravel), any company using said frameworks will welcome a preparation in their background language. Freelance commissions may be where PHP truly shines, but salaried work is almost as easy to find.

True, the next most innovative unicorn in tech will probably not build their project on PHP, much like the next Lady Gaga or the next Skrillex may not have an interest in violins. But if what you’re looking for is paid work, then the classic instrument will open the gates to just that.

#3 It’s where the magic happens

This one is admittedly rather subjective, so I’ll keep it short. Due to their limited range, violins are more often accosted to specialised virtuoso works. You are less likely to play a violin as a backdrop while singing your song, the way you might with a guitar.

Being a back-end language, PHP involves working at a level of code that is not superficial but essential, in the broadest possible sense of the word. It will see you designing the very heart of a website or a program, rather than the user interface or the presentation.

This doesn’t necessarily make it a language for everyone – some people prefer the more visual nature of front-end development – but, if you have a logical mind and a knack for abstract-thinking, then PHP will let you take that as far as it will go.

#4 The exception

There is one major exception to the rather elaborate parallel I’ve been constructing so far, and this is it: the violin is notoriously difficult to learn. It requires a good natural ear, and it takes a lot of practice just to stop making unbearable screeching sounds with it.

On the other hand, while perhaps not quite as elementary to write as Python, PHP does provide a much gentler introduction to coding than the violin does to music. At its basic level it can be simple to the point of being child-friendly, and its more-than-exhaustive documentation will ensure you’ve always got somewhere to turn when you have a question. As importantly, the community working with PHP is huge. Should you find yourself struggling, just reach a hand out, and someone will be there. It may even turn out to be someone from within our school.

Conclusion

Alongside a handful of other languages, PHP is at the heart of the modern professional coding scene, and its presence everywhere online means that this won’t change for at least a couple more decades.

True, it is not necessarily the best starting point for everyone. Very much depends on a student’s approach to coding and his/her ambitions. But the notion that it has no professional future is little more than seasonal nonsense, of the sort that often blazes and fades in the fast-paced world of tech.

Like the violin for an aspiring musician, all that PHP requires is someone who knows what they want to do and why. If you’ve reached this point of the article, then maybe that person is you.

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