Do Musicians Make Good Programmers?


"Errant Behaviors," a video and sound installation by Shawn Decker and Anne Wilson.

In response to my post on "Music, Mood, and Genius (not) -- or RockNRoll meets neuroscience," one Shawn Decker, a music professor and composer at the Chicago Art Institute (and a former classmate and ultimate-frisbee teammate of mine from college), wrote asking whether I knew of any studies testing the notion -- popular among the Chicago electronic music crowd, says Decker -- that similar talents or brain areas may underlie both musical composition and computer programming. Writes he,

[I]n many labs doing electronic media around Chicago, the programmers are often musicians who began programming computers late in life, and had none of the normally associated background education (i.e. mathematics). I heard on a NPR radio program that explored this very issue (I think it was a local WBEZ Chicago program) that music and programming both use the same part of the brain - the part responsible for "visual symbolic manipulation".

Well, Shawn, as teachers say when they don't know the answer: "Good question." This seemed an easy one, but I've had little luck finding hard answers or good studies of correlations. For starters, I couldn't find the NPR program you mention. And a number of Google and sci-lit searches failed to find much of substance. Below are the threads, some intriguing, that I managed to claw loose.

Some theories of intelligence, of course, hold these two areas apart: Howard Gardner's theory of multiple (7) intelligences, for instance, puts musical intelligence in its own "auditory-musical" niche as one of three "sensate" intelligences (along with visual-spatial and body-kinesthetic), decidedly distinct from logical-mathematical intelligence which covers logic, abstraction, math, and computer programming. Many people think Gardner's full of it, of course, partly because the theory is so untestable.

More helpful are a few scattered studies that do address your question -- that is, do programming (and math) and music interests or talents tend to run together? One small study published in 2004 by VJ Schmithorst and SK Holland, a couple of researchers at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati -- of which I could only reach the abstract, used brain imaging to try find, as the abstract put it, "the neural correlates of the previously hypothesized link between formal music training and mathematics performance." They scanned 15 adults, seven who'd had musical training since childhood and eight without, while the mentally added and subtracted fractions. They found differences in which areas lit up, leading them to hypothesize "that the correlation between musical training and math proficiency may be associated with improved working memory performance and an increased abstract representation of numerical quantities." In other words, musical training may give you an edge or greater ease with abstraction, which would in turn make programming easier. In that way it might substitute, as it were, for a strong early math background.

Given the recent obsession with brain imaging, I'm surprised I couldn't find something more substantial. But though some researchers, such as Michael O'Boyle (see a bit on his work in a entry on child prodigies in Wikipedia as well as in this Time article on prodigies , have done (inconclusive) studies on what brain areas are active in the mathematically gifted, I couldn't find any that would tell us whether the same areas seem to get used in people good at math and/or programming and music.

I suspect I'm missing something out there, however, and would be happy to hear from others knowing of research more to the point -- please comment below or drop me a line. And if there isn't anything, here's a pretty fat thesis subject.


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That is a frequently expressed, plausible correlation. However, I would be more interested to know whether musical training can give maths students a competitive advantage over those who don't study music and vice versa (but I am not sure how measurable musical talent is).


The "one small study" mentioned above does address this question: the adults who had studied music as children seemed to have an edge on those who had not. This was only one very small study, however, providing little to go on; despite much interest in the subject, hard data seems scarce. The Society for Neuroscience, for instance, has a "Brain Briefing" on the subject that essentially says the jury is still out, the data too sketchy to draw any real conclusions from. Another ripe thesis project, it would seem...

Two personal anecdotes to take with a grain of salt: My dad was working with IBM 360s at GM back in the early 1960s, when there were few computer science programs in Universities. He tells me that they used to actively recruit from music schools, on the theory that trained musicians had an aptitude for programming. (My dad was an extraordinary programmer -- now retired. He lived and breathed assembler language, and GM even loaned him to NASA to work on the Gemini and Apollo missions.)

Perversely, I studied music at one of the country's finest music schools, and I excelled. I got only one C in my entire college career -- in an introduction to comp sci course I took as a science requirement. I aced all the written tests, but not a single one of my programs compiled. I still suck at programming and avoid it at all costs. When necessary, I can copy someone else's javascript and modify it to do what I want, but that's about it.

I had always heard that math-people and musicians overlap rather significantly and some universities still consider computer science a branch of mathematics. Without being able to find a study to support my opinion, I suspect that there is a probably some correlation here.

Anecdotally, I am a physicist by training - and believe that I am a pretty fair mathematician - and was initially hired by my current employer as a programmer. I was in band in school (sax) and play a little guitar and piano now. So, while I realize that I comprise a small data set, I think that there msut be some link. After all, the math "big picture" isn't really about being able to solve differential equations or quickly figure out the tip at dinner but, rather, has more to do with recognizing patterns and relationships. Music and programming, IMHO, inocrporate much of the same sort of thinking an, at least in my mind, have always seemed to have significant commonality.