Your Brain on Adult Music Lessons

How Learning an Instrument Improves Cognition for Children and Adults

Brain_music_training

“Play it,” Susan said.

“But I’ve never seen it before,” I protested.

Susan, my flute teacher of four years, had just plunked down a Handel Sonata in F major on my music stand.

“Try it, sight reading is good for your brain,” Susan urged.

I wanted to see if playing the flute would help me locate those darn car keys.

Good for your brain—Susan’s words resonated with me. Like so many middle-aged people, I worry about my brain; particularly because my father died of dementia a few years ago. As musicians, we’ve heard it many times: learning an instrument is good for your brain. But we’ve also heard it about other activities like exercise, crossword puzzles, and mahjong. So before I took up running or joined my friends at the card table, I wanted to see if playing the flute would help me locate those darn car keys.

Gottfried Schlaug is a well-known neurologist who has studied the relationship between music and the brain extensively. He has proven that child musicians’ brains are structurally and functionally different than non-musicians’. Specifically, child musicians have larger corpus callosums—the part of the brain that plays a role in inter-hemispheric communication. The corpus callosum transfers motor, sensory, and cognitive information between the brain hemispheres. Schlaug also found that learning an instrument can result in long lasting changes in brain plasticity, which is the ability of the brain to change as a result of experience.

In January 2014, an article titled “How musical training affects cognitive development: rhythm, reward and other modulating variables” by Miendlarzewska and Trost (Frontiers in Neuroscience) concluded that musical training results in a wide array of long-term effects:

Listening skills: Musical training improves listening skills, including sound discrimination.

Linguistic skills: Musical training has been shown to transfer to language related skills, suggesting that there is a common overlap in brain networks between speech and music. Students with musical training had better auditory perception, verbal fluency and memory, second language acquisition, and reading abilities.

Executive function: Music training even improves the cognitive process that allows us to stay focused on means and goals and to willfully alter our behavior in response to changes in the environment.

These studies focused on children, but the article cited that musical activities can also have a beneficial impact on brain plasticity and cognitive and physical abilities later in life. Another study found that people over 60 who began to learn the piano and continued for six months showed improved results in working memory, motor skills, and perceptual speed compared to a control group without piano lessons.

This last bit of research was particularly motivating. Even if I lost most of the benefits of my six years of childhood flute study, my brain had to be benefiting from picking it up again a few years ago.

I’m back at my weekly lesson with Susan. She smiles as she places a Mozart Aria in front of me.

“Okay, okay, I know, sight reading is good for my brain,” I chuckle.

Susan’s smile fades as she says: “You played this a few weeks ago.”

Maybe I should take up running?

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7 Comments

  1. Ha! So true! Great article filled with wisdom and Lesley’s signature light comedic touch!

    • Thanks Suzette, I greatly appreciate the compliment.

  2. As all of Lesley’s articles are, well written and interesting. May have to take up piano again!

    • Debi, dust off the old sheet music and give it a whirl….would love to play a duet one day!
      Thanks for the comment.

  3. Maybe I should be running while sight reading! Might be twice as effective in finding car keys. Thanks for this well written and informative post!

  4. So I’m weeping uncontrollably over the tragedy of my wasted life, can’t stop but make myself come back to this piece about how studying music from the age of eight might still prevent me from succumbing to alzheimer’s, still weeping I read through it, get to the punch line and am convulsed, suddenly, in redeeming, steadying laughter. Thank you for this delightful invasion of my self pity and of course for the reminder that we can carry on regardless.

  5. I love playing the piano. It’s a really good stress reliever

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