If you want to improve your cognitive abilities, learn piano

BioTechniques News
Beatrice Bowlby

Music training improves audio–visual processing and boosts your mood.

Learning a musical instrument provides multisensory training, requiring you to couple visual and auditory cues together. A study from the University of Bath (UK) found that learning an instrument improves our ability to process sights and sounds and reduces anxiety and stress. The results indicate that musical training could be beneficial for those dealing with mental health challenges.

“Learning to play an instrument like the piano is a complex task: it requires a musician to read a score, generate movements and monitor the auditory and tactile feedback to adjust their further actions,” described Karin Petrini, the senior author of the study. “In scientific terms, the process couples visual with auditory cues.”

In this study, 31 adults with no prior music training were randomly assigned to either music training, music listening or a group where participants read or studied. Those in the music training group underwent 11 weeks of one-to-one piano lessons that were an hour long, with the first 20 minutes dedicated to finger exercises and the rest to learning songs from a grade one exam list. Participants in the music listening group listened to the same pieces, which includes When the saints go marching in and Bach’s Aria in F, for 1 hour.

“We know that playing and listening to music often bring joy to our lives, but with this study, we were interested in learning more about the direct effects a short period of music learning can have on our cognitive abilities,” commented Petrini.

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In two separate studies, researchers have shown for the first time that rats and seals show innate beat synchronization, which may help understand human musicality.

A combination of self-reported questionnaires and computer-based cognitive tasks were used to assess the impact of the music training. Participants carried out autism-spectrum quotient 50 items (AQ-50), positive and negative affection schedule (PANAS) and depression anxiety stress scale-21 items (DASS-21) questionnaires bi-weekly throughout the study. Computer-based cognitive tasks were used to monitor their judgment of audio–visual simultaneity. Each participant was shown two types of videos; one judging if a flash and beep were in sync and another judging the synchronization of a face–voice audio–visual clip. An emotion recognition task was also carried out using facial expression videos.

Data analysis revealed that those learning to play piano developed more accurate audio–visual processing compared to participants in the music listening and non-music groups. The ability to process multisensory information is beneficial in many activities from driving to finding someone in a crowd and even watching TV. “The findings from our study suggest that this has a significant, positive impact on how the brain processes audio–visual information even in adulthood when brain plasticity is reduced,” explained Petrini.

They also found that the music group reported reduced depression, anxiety and stress compared to the start of the study. The authors suggest that music training may benefit those with mental health difficulties and are currently developing further testing to assess this. Emotional recognition did not improve over the 11 weeks.

The researchers point out that the sample size was not optimal and replication with more participants would be ideal. They also highlight that only the impacts of learning classical piano were assessed in this study. It is known that there are genre-specific neurobiological differences between classical and jazz pianists, which is a factor that could be explored in future studies.

So, if you’ve been looking for a sign to learn a musical instrument, now’s the time.

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