Why are so many geeks also musicians?

A valiant attempt to explain the undeniable connection between computing and music from someone who lives in both worlds

Last week, during a short break in an intense technical discussion with a half-dozen computer jocks, the conversation turned to music. It took only a few minutes to establish that a guitar player, a saxophonist, a trombone player, and a drummer were in the room. Me, I've played the bass professionally since I was 15. We could've formed a band right there.

These weren't just casual musicians, either. One had built a stand-alone studio next to his house; the guitarist had made a few recordings that were quite good; and I happened to have a few of my own. We spent the next 20 minutes talking about all things music, at the same level of intensity we'd been discussing computing a few minutes before: tube versus solid-state amps, studio design, the highs and lows of certain studio reference speakers, and so on.

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Many have noted the link between programming and music, but I think it's broader than that -- you'll frequently find a general similarity between IT people, whether or not they code for a living, and musicians. Plus, there's a heavy concentration of improvisational musicians in the ranks of IT.

One school of thought says the musical aspirations hit first and the computing bug later, when it became clear that being a full-time musician wasn't going to bring home the bacon. There's some truth to that, but the connection is more basic. You often hear of musicians who begin playing an instrument at an early age -- then develop an interest in what exactly makes their electronics and computer games work. Something essential draws people with musical talent into the computing world.

The link between programming and music is obvious. Whatever parts of the brain are linked to translating sheet music into actual music through the conduit of an instrument must be related to the part that can translate a programmatic requirement into code through the conduit of the computer. They're both certain kinds of problems that demand to be solved.

But when it comes to other tech professions, particularly IT administration, the link lies in improvisation. IT admins must interpret a situation, then respond appropriately and often creatively -- especially when troubleshooting. Where a jazz saxophonist might play a solo over a chord progression without thinking about the notes, a good IT admin can pick up on the details of a software or hardware problem without premeditation and track that trail to the solution.

Both computing and music have points where you need to follow the dotted line and points where you must come up with a novel approach to nailing a difficult challenge. Either you improvise well or, eventually, lose your gig.

And of course, there's the gear. Gearheads proliferate in both camps, especially guitarists, who always seem to have a thousand bits of equipment floating around their houses (and bring a significant portion to every gig).

Music and computing both present complicated problems that demand quick, intuitive responses -- and impart a real sense of accomplishment when you nail it. With luck you'll enjoy that reward, along with a check, from your next gig.

This story, "Why are so many geeks also musicians?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com.

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