SANS Digital Forensics and Incident Response Blog

Beats and Bytes - Striking the Right Chord in Digital Forensics

There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres. — Pythagoras

DOWNLOAD PAPER HERE and see them perform at the DFIR SUMMIT and TRAINING 2017 in AUSTIN TX.


Curiosity is a personality trait that tends to draw me towards others in a way that forms lasting and meaningful friendships. If I find someone as curious as I am about the same things I'm curious about, that shared curiosity provides fertile ground for conversation, inquiry, and collaboration. So, it comes as little surprise that Ryan Pittman, (Resident Agent in Charge, NASA OIG Computer Crimes Division), Matt Linton, (Chaos Specialist, Google Inc.) and I should become fast friends. The three of us are deeply curious people who share not only an interest in Digital Forensics and Incident Response, but also about all sorts of other subjects, including music.

Through strokes of synchronicity, independent observations, and conversations between Matt, Ryan, and I about music and its role in our personal and professional lives brought the three of us together to take a closer look. We talked about all the other successful and creative musician-forensicators we all knew of. We theorized that part of the secret to our success in this field was owed, in no small part, to our avocational musical practice. We talked about skills that translate directly from music to DF/IR such as pattern recognition and transposition skills. After all, music practice and notation is analogous to a computer program in that there is a specific set of instructions, that if followed correctly, result in a predictable result — the song. This led us to dig deeper, into research about music and the brain, and specifically how music helps build brain plasticity, supports emotional resilience, and builds teamwork.

Brain plasticity, also called neuroplasticity, refers to the ability of the brain to physically change throughout our lives. Our brains have the marvelous ability to reorganize themselves through the formation of new connections between brain cells known as neurons. Though genetic and environmental factors are part of the equation, a person's own actions also play a significant role in brain plasticity. Whenever a person learns something new, memorizes something, or practices a physical or mental skill, tangible physical changes happen in the brain. In fact, research shows that the brain doesn't stop changing through learning.

This is great news for anyone who wishes they could be "smarter" or wants to learn new things. You absolutely can! And, as it turns out, you don't have to have the highest IQ to be the most successful at what you do. Research in this area points to the fact that the combination of intelligence with creativity (supported through avocations such as music) results in the highest performing scientists.

Research also points to music as a great tool for supporting emotional resiliency. Listening to music has been shown to influence emotional state, energy level, and our perception of the world around us. Taking this one step further, playing or learning to play an instrument has led to positive outcomes for veterans suffering from PTSD. Playing music has been shown to short circuit and switch off stress responses, preventing stress responses from becoming chronic and improving emotional and physical health. In the DF/IR profession, where consistent exposure to highly stressful situations and traumatic content are all too frequent, supporting emotional resiliency through listening to, playing, and learning to play music makes a great deal of sense.

In terms of building the skills, mindset, and habits necessary for successful teamwork, studies have also shown playing music in a group to be extremely beneficial. Musicians who play together in a group learn to work together, support each other in success and failure, teach each other needed skills, and feel connected (by beat and rhythm), in addition to elevating their moods and focusing on something other than individual stress. In fact, musician's brainwaves have been shown to synchronize when they play together.

In addition to looking at these positive factors, Ryan, Matt, and I put together a survey and got responses from over 200 DF/IR professionals about their musical preferences and practices. We found that there are a lot of people in our field who already leverage music as a tool to support their basic brain health. We wrapped up what we learned in a paper that we'd like to share with the community. We'll be presenting our findings at the SANS DF/IR Conference, and you can read more about this not-so-secret elixir music, and how it could be helping you to improve your digital forensics and incident response practice in our paper, Beats & Bytes: Striking the Right Chord in Digital Forensics.

Bonus! If you'd like to check out what other forensicators listen to during their exams, check out the Ultimate DF/IR Playlist that we put together on Spotify!