Music Lessons Boost Brain Power

Wednesday, 13 Feb 2013 01:10 PM

By Nick Tate

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If your parents pushed you to take guitar or piano lessons as a kid, you may owe them a debt of gratitude for helping to boost your brain power today, new research suggests.

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found musical training before the age of 7 has a significant effect on the development of the brain and builds connections between the organ’s “motor regions” that govern how you plan and carry out movements.

The results also showed the earlier music lessons begin, the stronger the connections in the brain tend to be. In addition, the years between ages 6 and 8 are a "sensitive period" when musical training interacts with normal brain development to produce long-lasting changes in motor abilities and brain structure.

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"Learning to play an instrument requires coordination between hands and with visual or auditory stimuli," explained Virginia Penhune a psychology professor at Concordia University in Montreal, who helped lead the study. "Practicing an instrument before age 7 likely boosts the normal maturation of connections between motor and sensory regions of the brain, creating a framework upon which ongoing training can build."

For the study, researchers tested 36 adult musicians on a movement task and scanned their brains. Half of the musicians began musical training before age 7; the other half began at a later age. Both groups had the same number of years of musical training and experience. The musicians in both groups were also compared with individuals with little or no musical training.

When comparing motor skills between the two groups, researchers found musicians who began playing before age 7 had more accurate timing, even after two days of practice. The scans also showed differences in brain structure between the two groups; musicians who started early showed enhanced bundles of nerve fibers that connect the left and right motor regions of the brain. In fact, the researchers found that the younger a musician started, the greater the connectivity.

In addition, the brain scans showed no difference between the non-musicians and the musicians who began training later in life, suggesting the brain developments happen early or not at all.

Because the study tested musicians on a non-musical motor skill task, Penhune suggested the findings indicate the benefits of early music training go well beyond the ability to play an instrument.

She also noted: "It's important to remember that what we are showing is that early starters have some specific skills and differences in the brain that go along with that. But, these things don't necessarily make them better musicians.

"Musical performance is about skill, but it is also about communication, enthusiasm, style, and many other things that we don't measure. So, while starting early may help you express your genius, it probably won't make you a genius."

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