Music Lessons as Child May Keep Aging Minds Sharp

Friday, May 13, 2011

piano lesson: mother and child (deanwissing/flickr)

The Tiger Mothers may have been right all along: Music lessons as a kid may make you sharper decades later. A new study finds that adults with musical training appear to have sharper thinking and better hearing skills than their less musically inclined peers. Better yet, these benefits seem to buffer against some age-related memory and auditory declines later in life.

"Lifelong musical training appears to confer advantages in at least two important functions known to decline with age -- memory and the ability to hear speech in noise," said Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. Her study is published in the May 11 issue of the online science journal PLoS ONE.

Kraus led a study involving 18 musicians and 19 non-musicians, between the ages of 45 and 65, that tested their ability to discern speech from background noise. The musicians -- who began playing an instrument at age nine or earlier and consistently played an instrument throughout their lives -- beat the non-musician group in all tests except one where they showed nearly identical ability.

Kraus said that musicians’ experience of extracting meaningful sounds from a complex soundscape – and of remembering sound sequences – enhances the development of auditory skills.

In other words, musical training “fine-tunes” the nervous system. "The neural enhancements we see in musically-trained individuals are not just an amplifying or 'volume knob' effect," said Kraus, who is also a professor of neurobiology and physiology. Playing music engages their ability to extract relevant patterns, including the sound of their own instrument, harmonies and rhythms."

With only 37 participants, the study was small, but the results match those from other recent studies, including one from the University of Kansas involving 70 healthy adults age 60 to 83 who were divided into groups based on their levels of musical experience. It found that the musicians performed better on several cognitive tests than individuals who had never studied an instrument or learned how to read music.

According to a 2003 Gallup Poll, 37 percent of respondents in the United States said they play a musical instrument. Most began playing between 5 and 14 years of age.


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Comments [4]

Wil Cameron from Nashville, TN

Hey, this is a great resource.

Sep. 12 2011 08:11 AM
Michael Meltzer

Interesting. Some of the skills they are talking about are the same skills we would hope to hire in a trail guide if we were on a hunting trip or a bird-watching outing.
There is also something about the complex synaptic connections that music seems to open up, because IBM knew this in the 1960's and hired lots of musicians as it was developing pioneer software.

May. 17 2011 05:51 AM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

Can't argue with the results of the study. I'm thinking of Albert Einstein the violinist.

Thanks to my own early childhood experience with music, I listen to music beyond the melody and pick out the harmonies and countermelodies. It's been invaluable when I sing, to help me hear myself merging with the accompanist.

But I can also hear rythyms, chords and notes in the thumping and clanging of the mechanical equipment that surrounds me on a daily basis.

It's important that we all get "tuned" at a young age. All the more reason to support the arts in schools and not sacrifice them on the altar of "cost savings".

May. 16 2011 12:42 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

It is undeniable, given the evidence over the centuries, that the tactile skills of pianists and organists and string instr umentalists, the hearing and imagining skills of composers, particularly those of large scale compositions with large orchestras and/or vocal ensembles, and of singers, have disciplined the mind and set a template for good, efficient organization so important now more than ever to compete successively in business and in other activities, including sports.

May. 15 2011 04:00 PM

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