Musical training in childhood, good for your brain

Parents may have found a new reason to encourage their children to play a musical instrument. A new study led by scientists at Northwestern University reports that musical training during childhood can have positive effects on the adult brain, even if the training only lasts a few years.

As children return to school, many parents face the question of whether to enroll their child in music lessons. They don't want to overload their child with extracurricular activities, but they are also afraid of missing the age window when musical talent can be discovered and nurtured. Besides, an investment in music lessons might be fruitless if the child stops playing the musical instrument at a later age. Yet scientists now argue this is not the case.

Research on professional musicians shows that musical experience can not only rewire the auditory system, but also improve several of the brain's functions, such as motor control, memory and verbal ability. However, it had never been investigated whether these positive changes in the brain persist if the musical training stops before adulthood, which is indeed the case for most people who engage in music lessons at a young age.

In a new study published in August in the Journal of Neuroscience, scientists test healthy adults who started playing a musical instrument at around 9 years of age but stopped a few years later. They used a technique called Auditory Brainstem Response (ABR), which measures brain activity after auditory stimulation, a similar test to the one used to assess whether newborn babies can hear. The scientists then performed the same experiments on adults who have never played an instrument and compared the results. "We find that the adult brain profits from past experiences with music. This is the first study to focus on whether the effects of music are long-lasting and whether they persist after the child stops playing an instrument." explains Erika Skoe, leading author in the study.

The authors of the study propose that these long-term positive changes in the brain could be a result of the active interaction with sound that occurs when playing a musical instrument. "Playing a musical instrument is an incredibly active process that engages all of the senses, not just hearing. Active engagement with sound appears to be the critical ingredient for promoting long-lasting neural changes." says Skoe. This could explain why passive exposure to an enriched auditory environment alone only produces a temporary enhancement of brain activity, a phenomenon that has been observed in rat models. Referring to these experiments Skoe explains:

"An enriched auditory environment was more or less "background music" in the animal's environment and not something that they could directly interact with."

So when should children start learning music in order to benefit from these long-lasting neural changes?

"Our study suggests that long-lasting effects can be seen with just one year of music lessons during grade [primary] school. However, music is likely to be a positive force on the brain at any age. Because every child is different, we are cautious about interpreting our results too prescriptively" answers Skoe.

This and other studies raise the debate of whether or not music lessons should be compulsory in state schools. Nina Kraus, head of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory where the present study was conducted says: "I think musical training can do tremendous good (beyond music) in developing a better learner. Musical training strengthens auditory-based communication and learning skills including hearing speech in noisy situations, reading, auditory working memory, and auditory attention."

From this elegant research we learn that playing a musical instrument during childhood has long-lasting positive effects on the brain. And the good news for parents is, that children will benefit from their music lessons throughout their adult life, even if they decide to swap the violin for a surfboard in their teens.

Find more information on this topic on the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory website at

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