Playing the piano boosts brain processing power

A randomised control trial shows the positive effects learning to play music has on cognitive abilities.

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Music involves different senses and is emotional, and musicians show enhanced detection of audio-visual temporal discrepancies and emotion recognition compared to non-musicians. However, whether musical training produces these enhanced abilities or if they are innate within musicians remains to be determined.

A new study by researchers at the University of Bath demonstrates the positive impact learning to play a musical instrument has on the brain’s ability to process sights and sounds. The study also shows how it can help lift a blue mood.

Thirty-one adult participants were randomly assigned to a music training, music listening, or control group, who all completed a one-hour session per week for 11 weeks. People with no prior musical instruction or expertise were told to complete weekly one-hour sessions. The control groups either listened to music or used the time to finish their assignments while the intervention groups played music.

Beginners who undertook piano lessons for just one hour a week over 11 weeks reported significant improvements in recognizing audio-visual environmental changes and reported less depression, stress, and anxiety.

The scientists found that people’s capacity to process multimodal information, such as sight and sound, improved within a few weeks after starting lessons*.

These advances to the multisensory system went beyond musical ability. People’s audio-visual processing accuracy increased across tasks after receiving musical training. When asked to identify whether sound and visual “events” happened simultaneously, those who took piano instruction performed more accurately.

This was true for simple displays presenting flashes and beeps and for more complex displays showing a person talking. Such fine-tuning of individuals’ cognitive abilities was not present for the music-listening group (where participants listened to the same music as played by the music group) or for the non-music group (where members studied or read).

Scientists noted, “The findings went beyond improvements in cognitive abilities, showing that participants also had reduced depression, anxiety, and stress scores after the training compared to before it. Music training could benefit people with mental health difficulties, and further research is currently underway to test this.”

Cognitive psychologist and music specialist Dr. Karin Petrini from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology explained“We know that playing and listening to music often brings joy to our lives, but with this study, we were interested in learning more about the direct effects a short period of music learning can have on our cognitive abilities.”

“Learning to play an instrument like the piano is a complex task: it requires a musician to read a score, generate movements and monitor the auditory and tactile feedback to adjust their further actions. In scientific terms, the process couples visual with auditory cues and results in multisensory training for individuals.”

“The findings from our study suggest that this has a significant, positive impact on how the brain processes audio-visual information even in adulthood when brain plasticity is reduced.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Yuqing Che, Crescent Jicol, Chris Ashwin, Karin Petrini. An RCT study showing few weeks of music lessons enhance audio-visual temporal processing. Scientific Reports, 2022; 12 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-23340-4
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