Fergus Black

music teacher and performer


Playing the piano makes you brainy

It really does. on 29th September 2010, New Scientist reported recent research from several sources which explain how the brain is changed and enhanced through musical education, especially playing the piano, and how that can improve skills and learning in other areas:

“One of the most promising is music - and not via the famous but controversial "Mozart effect", whereby merely listening to classical music is supposed to improve brain performance. Learning to play an instrument brings about dramatic brain changes that not only improve musical skills but can also spill over into other cognitive abilities, including speech, language, memory, attention, IQ and even empathy. Should I dust off my trumpet and get practising?
Musical training, especially at a young age, seems to significantly alter the structure of your brain. For instance, after 15 months of piano lessons young children had more highly developed auditory and motor areas than their untrained peers. These brain areas are very active when you play an instrument (Journal of Neuroscience, vol 29, p 3019).

Professional musicians have an increased volume of grey matter, which routes information around the brain, in areas that deal with motor control, audition and visuo-spatial processing (Journal of Neuroscience, vol 23, p 9240). Musicians who started training before the age of 7 also have a thicker corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibres that shunts information between the two halves of the brain (Neuropsychologia, vol 33, p 1047).

These structural changes have been shown to tally with the development of musical ability. But can music reach outside of its own domain and improve other aspects of cognition?

The tentative answer is yes. Musically trained people perform better on tests of auditory memory - the ability to remember lists of spoken words, for example - and auditory attention. Children with a musical training have larger vocabularies and higher reading ability than those who do not (Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol 11, p 599). There is even some evidence that early musical training increases IQ (Psychological Science, vol 15, p 511).

Better learning

Patrick Ragert at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany and colleagues have an idea why this should be so. They found that professional pianists were much better than non-musicians at a standard test of spatial acuity - the ability to discriminate two closely separated points. Crucially, they also improved faster with practise (European Journal of Neuroscience, vol 19, p 473). This is evidence that the brains of trained musicians are more plastic, says Ragert, suggesting that learning an instrument may enhance your capacity to learn other skills.

This can even extend to languages. Trained musicians are better at discriminating pitch changes in made-up words similar to those found in Mandarin, a "tonal" language where such changes can alter the meaning of a word. This is evidence that they are better equipped to learn new languages (Applied Psycholinguistics, vol 28, p 565). And that is not all. Music training has even been shown to enhance empathy because it fine-tunes your ability to recognise emotional nuances in speech (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol 1169, p 209).

Much of this research has been done in children or professional musicians who started training very young. Developing brains are known to be more malleable than adult ones - for music, there seems to be a sensitive period at around 7. So would the same kind of training make any difference to me? "Those who begin musical training earlier in life see greater enhancements," says Dana Strait, who works in music cognition at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. "But all signs point toward musical training being powerful at any point in life."

All the signs point to musical training being powerful at any point in life So if I resumed trumpeting where I left off, I could potentially enhance my brain in all sorts of ways (while simultaneously delighting my neighbours, no doubt).”

The whole article, Mental muscle: six ways to boost your brain by Helen Thomson can be found here

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