Monday, October 21, 2013

Musical Minds are Faster, Sharper Minds

The ability to play a musical instrument well can give musicians a wonderful outlet for self-expression. Research has also consistently linked playing music to improved academic outcomes. For example, we have previously blogged about how studying music can help children who have difficulty excluding extraneous noises while processing language and how it makes students better listeners, even into adulthood. Recently, another study from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland indicated that time spent playing musical instruments may also help people process information more quickly, and perhaps delay or prevent the onset of dementia or deterioration due to mental illness.

Eaglebrook School/Flickr

In the study, a small group of subjects was divided into groups based on how many hours of their lives they’d spent practicing a musical instrument; the high group, for example, reported spending more than 5,000 hours practicing, while the lowest group had spent less than 200 hours. Next, they were given a series of “conflict tasks” commonly used by psychologists. Conflict tasks typically present subjects with several stimuli at once but require them to respond to only one of them.

The results of the study showed that the more hours the subjects had logged practicing instruments, the faster they could accurately respond to conflicting stimuli. The authors postulate that musical brains might be faster brains. And that’s not all; subjects who had devoted more hours to music were also able to detect and correct their errors more readily.

Here at The Yellin Center, we've worked with countless students who find solace in music. We have advocated music lessons and band and orchestra participation almost without exception because of the numerous benefits—fine motor development, mental wellness, improvement in self-esteem, etc.—music can provide. This study gives us just one more reason to urge that parents feel good about making time in kids’ busy after school schedules for music.

Interestingly, the brain functions musicians seem to command so much more easily are the first to suffer from aging or from mental illnesses like depression. Perhaps playing a musical instrument could be a good preventative measure for those with higher risk for these maladies. The authors of the study urge that it is never too late to begin learning to play music, so even older adults should not be deterred. And for those with impossibly frantic schedules, or ten thumbs, or those who just too daunted to pick up a trumpet, simply listening to music has been shown to reduce stress and give one’s immune system a boost.

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