Cognitive Daily

I’m a fast typist, but Greta types much faster than me. I’ve taken a few years of piano lessons, but Greta could read music before she could read, and she still plays oboe and English horn with the Davidson College Symphony Orchestra. Could her 30+ years of musical training be the reason she’s a faster typist?

This week’s Casual Fridays study was inspired by my observations about my personal typing quirks, but it quickly morphed into a new justification for music lessons. Commenter (and perception of music blogger) Scott Spiegelberg felt his musical training might have had something to do with his typing ability, so I added a question about musical training to the study.

541 participants took a typing test and then responded to 12 questions about their typing quirks (and musical training). As you might guess from the headline, musical training was indeed related to typing speed. Those with no musical training averaged 57 words per minute — competent, but not great. However, respondents who said they’d had 5 or more years of musical training averaged over 65 words per minute. Impressive!

But does the type of musical instrument matter? Take a look at this:

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People trained on piano, or on any instrument with keys (clarinet, flute, and Greta’s oboe and English horn) typed significantly faster than those with no music training. Typing for string players, however, wasn’t significantly different from those with no training.

We can’t say for sure that the music training caused better typing — perhaps people who choose to play instruments with keys are just naturally predisposed to be better typists, but I’ve got a hunch that the training itself is what helps.

But an even stronger link to fast typing can be found in another part of the data. If you don’t look at the keyboard, you’re going to be a faster typist. Take a look at these results:

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Each step on this graph represents a statistically significant improvement in typing ability. Those who never look at the keys are nearly twice as fast as those who always look at the keys. And, in fact, not looking at the keyboard is significantly better than music training at predicting typing ability. Best of all: Play piano and never look at the computer keyboard. The 49 respondents who did this averaged an amazing 76.14 words per minute.

But what about those typing quirks? Is it possible to have less-than-perfect typing form and still type fast? Let’s take a look at a few common quirks:

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This graph compares typing speed with the fingers our respondents use to type a few keys. The arrow on each graph indicates the “correct” finger taught in typing classes. As you can see, using the proper finger to type “P” or “X” corresponds to faster typing speeds, but respondents using the “incorrect” ring finger to type backspace actually type a bit faster (though not significantly faster) than those using the correct pinky finger. The quirk of using the wrong finger in this case doesn’t slow you down. In fact, among respondents who used the correct finger to type both “P” and “X,” those who used the ring finger for backspace were actually significantly faster than those who used the pinky for backspace — 69 versus 63 WPM. This typing quirk is associated with faster typing!

Another quirk I’ve noticed in my own typing is that I always use the same thumb to type “space” (oddly, my right thumb, even though I’m left-handed). I seem to recall being taught to alternate thumbs as the situation required (I’m not certain about this, though). What do our survey results suggest?

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Faster typists are the ones who pick a thumb and stick with it. The particular thumb doesn’t matter, but alternating thumbs or using both together is associated with significantly slower typing.

So, if you want to improve your typing, what’s the best way to do it? We asked our respondents how they learned to type, and here’s how the various methods compare to actual reported typing speed:

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All these results are significantly different; learning on a computer at school is associated with the best typing speeds, though I wonder if the old-fashioned typewriter method suffers because typists slow down with age. Learning on your own with commercial typing software, however, appears to be an attractive alternative to the classroom.

Finally, I couldn’t resist making one last observation. It’s always seemed to me that people who use the numeric keypad to type numbers are slow typists. They’ll be typing along, they need to type a three-digit number, and they’ll painstakingly remove their hands from the keyboard and shift over to the keypad for entry. Isn’t that a waste of time? Now I’ve got some results to back up my observation:

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You see! The fastest typists use the numbers on the keyboard, not the keypad. Whether you’re a touch typist or you look at the numbers, using the keyboard is faster.

Comments

  1. #1 Brian Mingus
    May 11, 2007

    Just curious – why did you limit the results to people who type 70-80 words per minute? I’m pretty sure I entered a number circa 120 wpm. I don’t play a musical instrument and I never look. I also don’t consider 70-80 words per minute very fast. The world record is 150 words per minute for 50 minutes. I can beat that in short bursts, but she maintains that speed.

    A fantastic way to improve your typing speed is to have immediate reinforcement, such as player-vs-player fighting in a text-based Multi-User Dungeon (MUD).

    These effects seem to show you what makes a decent typer, but not the fastest or most accurate. I would predict that the actual best typers had some kind of special pressure in their environment that provided constant reinforcement.

  2. #2 Chris
    May 11, 2007

    The keypad isn’t intended to type one number in a paragraph of text. It’s intended for when you need to type a lot of numbers in rapid succession and very little else.

    If you test people’s typing speed on typing large amounts of numbers, I think you’ll see the keypad users win that test.

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    May 11, 2007

    why did you limit the results to people who type 70-80 words per minute?

    I didn’t. The highest reported speed was 125 WPM — was that you? There were only 8 people reporting speeds above 100 WPM, so that’s why the highest average I reported — for people who play piano and don’t look at the keyboard — was 76 WPM. Remember, these are averages, not records.

  4. #4 HW
    May 11, 2007

    Yeah I was thinking about when I am entering numerical data in reference to the number keypad question – when entering data I would think the keypad is much quicker, and I don’t have to look at the keys at all.

  5. #5 tristero
    May 11, 2007

    Music training per se doesn’t seem to be the issue, but rather repeated practice wiggling fingers on various keyboards of one sort. I suspect you’d get similar results if you tested typing skills on those who’ve run, say, cash registers most of their lives.

    It would be useful to test singers who have not learned piano or other keyed instruments to see how well they type. My guess is no better than non-singers, or at most marginally better.

  6. #6 js
    May 11, 2007

    Interesting experiment! You seem (at least in the title) to be assuming that causality runs in the no looking -> fast typing direction, but I think that the other direction would be more likely. Or, probably more accurately, that there would be a common cause along the lines of (fingering skill + experience) -> (speed + not looking).

    Similarly, a common cause of general fine motor skill may also be responsible for at least some of the musical instrument playing -> fast typing relationship. (Not everyone who takes piano lessons is necessarily gifted with respect to fine motor skill, but those who stick with it for the longest time are likely to have more natural skill than those who don’t.)

  7. #7 Mr. Person
    May 11, 2007

    I clocked in at around 70 wpm, and I reported using the ring finger on my right hand to press the Backspace key.

    It’s seems odd to me, now that I think about it, that students would be taught to use their pinkies for this key.

    Holding my hands in the home position, I am able to hit the Backspace key with only a wrist movement because my ring finger is much longer than my pinky. I have to make a slight arm movement to hit the Backspace key with my pinky, taking my right hand momentarily off of home position. Seems to me like the ring finger is just naturally faster.

  8. #8 Raman VikramAdith
    May 11, 2007

    Nice survey!

    HAHAHA!!! Wat that NUM PAD users (a species I truly detest).

  9. #9 Tony
    May 11, 2007

    Dave, I don’t recall the question asking how many years one was TRAINED on an instrument, so that might limit the way you interpret the results. I play both guitar and keyboard, but had no formal (teacher-student)training in either. Perhaps I misread the question, but the years I entered were from when I first started playing.

    I also found that my typing speed is much slower when I am typing printed text compared to when I am composing (such as typing this)or typing from a sound source (someone telling me what to type). I think there should be separate tests for dictation-speed typing and text-copy typing; I have a feeling I would be over 100wpm on the former.

  10. #10 alex
    May 11, 2007

    @Mr. Person: I have the opposite situation with regards to the backspace key. The natural motion of my ring finger stops at the +/= key and moving it further requires bring the middle finger along for the ride, but my pinky can extend to the backspace with little effort.

    The backspace key is interesting because you aren’t really supposed to be hitting that button, and it adversely affects your WPM by using it at all. I remember being told in my (computer) typing class to not correct my errors during speed tests (of course we were also encouraged to strive for high accuracy). Some measure of the accuracy would have been nice in this survey.

    @Tony: Again, it’s opposite for me. I find that I can type much faster by copying printed text. I don’t really have to think and can look ahead a bit.

  11. #11 chezjake
    May 11, 2007

    One could argue that success at typing and keyed instruments is shared because those people have better “muscle memory,” which thereby enables them to perform without looking. Some of that may result from training and practice, but perhaps there is also some natural enabling function going on in brain structure.

    Success with stringed instruments, on the other hand, requires more than just muscle memory. There’s a need to simultaneously do significantly different actions with each hand, which may require a different sort of neurological enabling.

  12. #12 Jennifer
    May 11, 2007

    Always has to be one person I guess who doesn’t fit that mold. I have had 9 years piano lessons, played flute for 8 years, and have read music for almost 20 years.
    I find it difficult to type without looking at the keys and also have a hard time passing a 50 WPM 6 or fewer mistake typing test. What’s wrong with me? lol

  13. #13 Lori Handelman
    May 11, 2007

    I played flute and piccolo, and classical guitar, and I type faster than anyone I know — back in the ancient days of high school when these things were timed, I typed over 110 WPM. Although my manual dexterity probably helped, here is the real reason I (and my classmates) typed so fast: We were taught to type to music. My teacher emphasized regular rhythm over speed, and her favorite piece was Flight of the Bumblebee. She had it on tape and played it at different speeds as we progressed.

    Even today (I graduated high school in 1977), I type extremely fast, and Mrs. Clanton would be pleased to hear my steady metronome-like rhythm.

    Oh…I also type numbers on the keyboard, without looking, as fast as I type anything else. She was a martinet, that teacher.

  14. #14 Freiddie
    May 11, 2007

    I’ve noted in the comments section of the survey, that I think maybe, just maybe, you should add a section that asks about adding the hand I normally use to press the SHIFT key (did you notice that?) I’m soo used to left SHIFT that I press SHIFT + A with my left pinky & ring fingers (yes, ring for A, but only when using the SHIFT key). Some say you should alternate for different sides of the letter, but I found it very difficult (left SHIFT + L or right SHIFT + Q etc.). In fact I thought this was going to come up in the survey (but it didn’t). Sigh.

  15. #15 Richard
    May 11, 2007

    I play Middle Eastern flute (Arabic nay) and I’ve definitely noticed that immediately after one our 3 hour rehearsals, my typing is MUCH faster and more precise! My typing speed drops back to the normal rate, which still isn’t too bad, after an hour or so.

  16. #16 roseindigo
    May 11, 2007

    Here’s a comment I found interesting, made by Brian: “I would predict that the actual best typers had some kind of special pressure in their environment that provided constant reinforcement”

    Actually, that’s been my situation. I’ve been a medical transcriptionist for over 30 years, type as fast as most doctors talk, since I get paid by the line. I have been clocked at 145 w.p.m. while I’m listening to dictation. The only time I look at the keyboard is for obscure medical symbols. So I think it’s more a matter of “muscle memory” than it is musical training, although musical training on some instruments (as stated) probably helps somewhat. Also, I think in “whole words and sentences” when I type, NEVER just one letter at a time, and it seems to flow automatically. I slow down when I have to think about the spelling of a word.

    Hey, money is a great incentive!!!! I’ve known medical transcriptionists who are even faster than I am, so it isn’t as rare as some think in certain fields where typing is done with incentive pay in mind. And they can keep it up for hours at a time. Usually the breaking point of slow-down comes after about five or six hours, and before then it’s SUPER SPEED.

  17. #17 roseindigo
    May 11, 2007

    By the way, the magazine “Scientific American” did a study of how typists type many, many years ago—B.C. (before computers) and I recall that almost all they said about the thinking processes of good typists does apply to myself and other good typists I have known. Strange thing is, I flunked typing in high school because my fingers just did not have the strength to deal with a manual typewriter, but once the elctrics came out my speed just went up and Up and UP!

  18. #18 wintersweet
    May 11, 2007

    I scored 97 WPM, which is lower than it used to be. I took piano classes but can’t really play (so I said no on those questions), only look at the keyboard very rarely (like, for ~, which is different on the different keyboards I use each day), taught myself to type, and use non-standard fingers for backspace, C, etc. So, mixed results. I’d like to see what just the very fastest typists answered…say, those who got 85 WPM and over.

    I’m also a little curious about laptop vs. desktop, and those who use more than one keyboard layout in a day (like I do).

    As for the number pad, there isn’t a real one on the laptops I use. For extensive numerical data entry, though, I really do prefer to use it.

  19. #19 Julie
    May 11, 2007

    I’ve played alto sax, clarinet and piano for most of my life, but if I never start typing with more than six fingers I don’t think I’ll ever be that fast :(

  20. #20 Not June Cleaver
    May 11, 2007

    This is an intriguing study that may actually be worthy of further investigation! I wonder if there is a correlation between being visual/right-brained or sequential/left-brained and if that plays a part not only in typing quickly but in choosing to play a musical instrument at all.

    Also wanted to add to the comment about your survey question being limited to years of training on an instrument. I have played various instruments for years (particularly piano), but never took lessons for more than 3 years on any of them. I answered based on number of years of lessons, not years playing (the opposite response of the commenter above).

    Also, I learned to type on a manual typewriter and the backspace key was quite hard to press with my pinky (not to mention the fact that it was pretty much a useless key back then, so I didn’t get much practice on it). As I’m typing this now, I realize that I use the ring finger of my right hand, not the index finger as I indicated on your survey. Oh well.

    My net speed was 76 (78 with 2 errors) and I only look at the keyboard when I have to type numbers or symbols.

  21. #21 Clark
    May 11, 2007

    Dang. And I thought 45 wpm was fast. I feel so insecure now. And I even played a few instruments. I don’t even look at the keys!

  22. #22 Nikhil
    May 12, 2007

    Interesting study!
    How about looking at the correlation between fast typing and using an instant messenger program? I would guess that people who use IM regularly are much faster than non IM users, out of necessity more than anything else.

  23. #23 Elf M. Sternberg
    May 13, 2007

    Want to type faster? Apparently, if you switch to the Dvorak keyboard, the layout on the keyboard won’t match the functional layout and you’ll have to survive by never looking at the keyboard– it’ll only confuse you.

  24. #24 Scott Simmons
    May 14, 2007

    When I started reading this post, I felt bad that I’d missed seeing this survey … But once I got to the core results, I guess my data wouldn’t have made much difference. I play piano, never look at my typewriter keys, and type ~75 wpm …

  25. #25 drmk
    May 17, 2007

    I think the alternating thumbs thing is a holdover from when two spaces between sentences was the norm — alternating thumbs was faster than two repeated strokes with the same thumb.

    I also use only my left thumb for the space bar, despite the fact that I’m right handed. And, as I’m discovering in the process of writing this post, I use my ring finger for the delete/backspace key.

    I’ve had extensive musical training on piano and a “keyed” instrument (I’m a music professional), and I type over 100 wpm. I’m sorry I missed your study.

  26. #26 LR
    May 22, 2007

    Validates what I have said for years. Played piano and accordian in my younger years and still type at around 85-90wpm–despite the fact that I have carpal tunnel from writing/erasing on blackboards/whiteboards for ions.

    Also know that students who can play musical instruments do better at learning the keyboard–not just the fingering–but also reading notes & chords and playing. I believe that the brain processes the learning of the musical notes/alpha-numeric letters similarly.

  27. #27 Terri Moore
    May 28, 2007

    I have been teaching keyboarding for 15 years. I always stress keeping a steady pace as one types. Those individuals studying music probably naturally keeps the steady pace causing them to be faster. Sporatic typists can’t build speed.

    For those individuals that are not using the proper fingering: a little research into the development of the keyboard shows that the keys are placed in an order that prevents one finger or one hand from having more keystrokes than the others. If one uses the wrong finger to strike keys, that particular finger/hand will get tired faster which in turn slows you down and in turn leads to more errors.

  28. #28 Daniel
    July 1, 2007

    Fascinating stuff. As a pianist, composer and author, I agree that finger dexterity is an important factor in typing speed.

  29. #29 Jarred Taylor
    March 17, 2008

    Fascinating, Dr. Munger. A fellow Davidson grad and I run a blog called Tropophilia (http://tropophilia.com), and another ’07 grad and friend pointed us to this post following some thoughts I wrote about switching from hunt-and-peck to touch typing (http://tropophilia.com/2008/03/16/peck-or-touch/).

    I just subscribed to Cognitive Daily, and I’m sure we’ll posting about some of your research in the future. Hope you’ll check out our blog, we touch on science from time to time. :)

    Jarred Taylor (Davidson ’07)
    http://tropophilia.com