“Musical activities are an engaging form of cognitive brain training and we are now seeing robust evidence of brain plasticity from musical training not just in younger brains, but in older brains too”.
—Gavin Bidelman, Assistant professor, University of Memphis
With the use of modern technology, scientists have uncovered surprising evidence that playing a musical instrument holds a great deal more benefits than we have ever imagined.
Scientists are now able to monitor brain activity in real-time using FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). These machines monitor activity in different parts of the brain. Researchers found that listening to music triggered ‘fireworks’ within the brain, suggesting activity in multiple parts of the brain simultaneously.
Playing music is described by Anita Collins in a TED Ed video: ‘how playing an instrument benefits your brain’ as the brain’s version of a ‘full-body workout’.
“The neuroscientists saw multiple areas of the brain light up simultaneously, processing different information in intricate, interrelated and astonishingly fast sequences.”
—Anita Collins, TED Ed
Neuroscientists found that the aesthetic and artistic factors of learning to play a musical instrument are unique when compared with any other activity studied, including other arts and sports.
Making music triggers activity in virtually every part of the brain at once, particularly the visual, auditory and motor cortices, and disciplined practice strengthens these areas. We can apply that strength to benefit other functions in day-to-day life.
Playing a musical instrument involves the mathematical and linguistic capacities of the left hemisphere of the brain in addition to the creative capacity of the right hemisphere. This strengthens the bridge between the two, allowing better communication between them. As a result, it is suggested that people who play musical instruments hone better problem-solving skills in both social and academic situations. Musicians are also known to demonstrate heightened memory functions in regard to storing, creating and retrieving memories more efficiently.
The ability to comprehend speech has been shown to be one of the cognitive factors affected by aging. The brain’s central auditory system weakens in later years, diminishing its ability to analyze, sequence, and identify acoustic features of speech.
New studies led by the Canadian Rotman Research Institute (RRI) suggest that older adults who begin playing musical instruments at a young age identify speech sounds 20% faster than their non-musical peers.
“Starting formal lessons on a musical instrument prior to age 14 and continuing intense training for up to a decade appears to enhance key areas in the brain that support speech recognition”.
—- Baycrest Center for Geriatric Care
The study consisted of 20 healthy adults between the ages of 55 and 75, half of whom were musicians and the other half non-musicians. They were asked to identify sounds ranging from random speech sounds, to simple single vowel sounds, to a more challenging and complex combination of the two.
With the use of EEG (Electroencephalography) imaging, scientists were able to measure the precise timing of electrical activity in the brain in response to the given stimuli. It was then identified that older musicians showed double or triple brain-behavior response compared to their non-musical counterparts.
Musical training commenced before the age of fourteen and carried out into adulthood offers a cognitive boost to developing brains. Additionally, the new findings suggest that these boosts carry on into old age, when the brain needs the added help most.
Whether you are a parent considering introducing your child to their first musical instrument at a young age or an older adult who may have begun playing music as a young person, the benefits of a musical lifestyle are endless. Starting musical training early is the key to an even brighter future.