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It's a common belief in the coder world: many programmers are also (talented) musicians. It was certainly true in the places I've worked as a programmer, and I have been a professional musician and a professional coder for many years. I've met coders with albums in the top 40, musicians that want to start coding (and have talent for it), and so on.

So - is it true that there is a correlation between ability to code and musicianship? Have these two human endeavours been shown to be correlated by a scientific study?

Bonus points: If there is a proven correlation (and only in this case) what was the given explanation? Should I advise my fellow coders to pick up a guitar?

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There do seem to be a high number of Guitar Hero enthusiasts... –  Michael Mar 30 '11 at 20:04
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My experience is that mathmaticians and programmers have an affinity for music, but musicians don't necessarily have that affinity for math etc. (For example, my fiance is a graduate music student and could care less why her computer works, and is horrible at math.) –  Michael Mar 30 '11 at 20:31
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I am a Programmer and I play guitar, piano, flute and violin. I think it's something like, if you love math, you may love music. –  user1304 Mar 30 '11 at 21:48
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You assert that it is a common belief, I have never heard this before (although I have heard of link between music and maths) - do you have a source for this, or is it simply common in your experience? –  name removed Mar 31 '11 at 10:23
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It's a common belief in the coder world ... No, it isn't. A moderator told us here, that Claims must have some basic notability and 2. Very dubious notability of the claim, doubting of a very simple thing. Same rules for all. And, by the way, your prepared answer doesn't even fit the question. –  user unknown Aug 10 '11 at 1:15
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2 Answers 2

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Apparently there is such a relationship:

The neural correlates of the previously hypothesized link between formal musical training and mathematics performance are investigated using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). FMRI was performed on fifteen normal adults, seven with musical training since early childhood, and eight without, while they mentally added and subtracted fractions. Musical training was associated with increased activation in the left fusiform gyrus and prefrontal cortex, and decreased activation in visual association areas and the left inferior parietal lobule during the mathematical task.
--source

From the same paper comes the explanation of why:

We 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.

Clearly, even if the original research was with mathematics, increased working memory and increased abstract representation of numerical quantities are big trump cards for programmers.


As a humourous side note:

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The study you cite is likely underpowered and has great potential for HARKing. Even if there was truly higher activation in that region, that has no validity for answering your original question, because it's about musical training (not talent or ability) and basic math (not programming & NO performance data). They compared mean BOLD response in regions (while adding fractions vs while looking at numbers). So they have little-to-nothing to say on covariance of programming ability and musical potential/ability in the population. –  Ruben May 6 '13 at 18:22
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I took this questions to mean "Are good programmers more likely to be good musicians than non-programmers?" because the real question is a bit trivial (as one comment indicates) and I thought I could tell that this was what Sklivvz wanted to know from his own answer.

The most parsimonious explanation for this is likely to be the general factor of mental ability.

Here is a study by Deary, Strand, Smith, Fernandes (2007) on the relation of IQ tests to achievement in different school subjects in >70000 English school children.
The correlation of g with music was .54, with Information Technology it was .48, with math it was .77.

Here's another much smaller study:

Multiple regression analysis revealed that the best single predictor of music achievement was the academic achievement test.

So, in summary, smart people are good at music, maths, programming and other complicated stuff.

There is no specific reason to believe that there is a correlation between programming and music that goes beyond the one expected on the basis of the general factor underlying both, if experience with other abilities is any guide.

There is also no basis to recommend to guitarists to start programming or to programmers to start playing the guitar, at least not if they want to do this to improve on their "main game" -> cognitive training is usually highly specific (practicing the guitar makes you good with the guitar, not with git) and it's unlikely that this relationship is the exception.

That is why the Jaeggi study is the one that most researchers want to see replicated at Psychfiledrawer.com (in fact there have been several nonreplications already).

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