More Evidence That Trained Musicians Are Superior Thinkers

New research suggests that practicing Bach and Beethoven can build up the brain.
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Child playing music on piano

New findings suggest that even limited training and practice can provide significant cognitive benefits throughout life.

More than ever, a well-paying career requires sharp mental skills. People who can process information quickly, ignore distractions, and switch smoothly from one task to another are at an enormous advantage in the workplace.

New research identifies one subset of the population that disproportionately possesses those precise abilities: trained, experienced musicians.

Such people gave stellar performances on standardized tests measuring fluid intelligence, which the researchers define as "the ability to think abstractly and solve problems."

The results "add support to the mounting evidence of the positive relationship between music training and cognitive function," write psychologists Katherine Sledge Moore and Pinar Gupse Oguz of Arcadia University, and Jim Meyer of Elmhurst College.

Most of those enhanced abilities were limited to what they referred to as "music experts"—people who started training early in life, and kept at it for at least a decade. But one very important skillset, "executive functioning," was also bolstered for lightly trained amateur players.

This suggests that even limited training and practice can provide significant cognitive benefits.

In recent years, many studies have concluded that musical training enhances brain function. The goal of this new research was to confirm that link using the National Institute of Health's Toolbox Cognition Battery, a standardized set of tests that measure the key cognitive functions that together constitute fluid intelligence.

These include focus, processing speed, working memory (the ability to temporarily retain information and use it to learn, reason, or make informed decisions), and executive function (the ability to plan, organize, and accomplish goals).

The participants were 72 college undergraduates, who were grouped into three categories: Musical experts (people who began formal training at age 10 or younger, and kept up their practice for at least a decade); musical amateurs (those with at least one year of musical training); and non-musicians.

Combining the results of all the tests, "musicians with extensive experience scored significantly higher than non-musicians and less-trained musicians," the researchers write in the journal Psychology of Music. Specifically, they did better on four of the five cognitive skills that the tests measured.

These included attention ("ensemble performance requires the ability to focus on one's own part without being distracted by other parts," the researchers note); working memory (presumably strengthened by the process of memorizing music); and processing speed (which is enhanced by learning to react rapidly to the demands of the music, as well as to those of collaborators).

The results of the executive-function test, which involved rapidly sorting pictures by shape and color, were arguably the most intriguing, in that modestly trained musicians performed significantly better than non-musicians (although not as well as highly trained musicians).

If that finding is confirmed using a larger sample, "then as a society, we should be interested in universal musical education, perhaps starting in elementary and pre-school-aged children," the researchers argue.

As always with this type of study, there is the danger of conflating correlation with causation. As the researchers concede, it's possible that "people with superior fluid cognition skills are more likely to excel as musicians and stay in the practice."

Indeed, a 2013 study concluded that brighter kids are more likely to take up, and stick with, music lessons.

That said, the researchers point out that fluid intelligence skills "are highlighted in musical training," which involves "quickly comprehending a complex symbolic system, multitasking, reasoning, and more."

These findings strongly suggest that if you can master music, the skills you learn will prove very valuable even if you never touch an instrument again for the rest of your life. Parents and school administrators, take note.

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