Pattern Recognition: Math, Exams and all that Jazz

Written by Marc-Andre Seguin: marc

It came to my attention recently, while blogging at the NAMM Convention in Anaheim (yes, all the while studying for my next actuarial exam) that I should take the time to discuss the relationship between sciences and music. Or, at least, I can share what I now understand of it.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have an extensive background in Jazz in classical music. But, in my late twenties, I decided to make a comeback to “the real deal”: studying science and sit for actuarial exams. At first, I was very intimidated. While walking into an analysis class for the first time (sequences, series, proofs, compactness, limits, convergence, etc.) my internal dialog went something like:

“Oh no! I don’t get this proof! I don’t understand, I can’t think straight!”

“I’m just a musician. How can I learn all the formulas?!?”

“I’ll never make it. Artists don’t do math!”

I was very stressed out, and worried about my recent decision of going into mathematics and statistics. Moreover I felt inferior because, hey, I was just a musician and music teacher (and not some kind of soon-to-be Nobel Prize laureate).

First, what I understood since then is that negativity is not good. Found out the hard way, though. I am now more adept at repeating positive sentences in my head. Helps my focus a lot, in fact! But more importantly, I realized that pretty much the same kind of thinking is required for both music and logic (math). Different puzzles, same type of brain connections. In this TED Talk, an autistic lady describes these types of intelligence. The kind of intelligence used by musicians and actuaries alike is … 

Pattern recognition!

Honestly, I cannot say that I was an excellent musician. I can’t say that I’m an excellent math-head or actuary (yet). But I did notice that the transition was fairly smooth after all. Thanks to years of training (and work) in music, I was very keen at understanding abstract mathematical concepts because of my strong tendency to see patterns and create links in my mind.

Same is true for when I started studying for P/1 and FM/2: I could not only identify patterns within the questions (the material I had to learn), but also connected the general type of problems to the likely optimal way of solving them. It is then like a pattern within a pattern. Even if no two problems are exactly the same, I saw the same questions in disguise very often! Exactly what saved me and allowed me to pass both on the first try.

Now, advice for musicians that don’t feel up to the task: you do have what it takes. It’s already in you! If you give math your best shot, it will become second nature to you, just like music. The wiring in your brains is already there, you’ll just have to apply it differently. In fact, I know a number of musicians who turned to math successfully.

And finally, words to actuaries and rational thinkers: if you don’t play an instrument already, you should. Do whatever comes naturally to you (singing, guitar, piano, drums) and you’ll notice what incredible good it does to your mind. You’ll be exploiting existing connections in your brains, and perhaps even enhancing your rational thinking through the art of music. 

And great way to “stop thinking” (quit over-analyzing) for a while and enjoy the moment 

… while still working out that big brains of yours. (-:

About the author: Marc-Andre (Larocque-) Seguin is the webmaster of and He confesses: “Actuarial science came as a bit of a revelation about a year ago. One of my teachers, a very kind and passionate top-dog researcher in probability, discussed the CERA program in his 3rd year undergrad probability class. Then following my first visit to website and a few convincing conversations with classmates who had already passed 1 or 2 exams. You know the drill. [Laughs]”