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Trained Musicians Make Better Decisions

New research finds there's an advantage to starting music lessons in late childhood.

Parents aware of how music training can boost their children's cognitive development may be eager to get them into a practice room as early as possible. But new research suggests there may be an advantage to holding off for a few years.

It reports that, faced with a complex decision-making task, participants who began musical training after age eight made better choices than those who started earlier, or never took lessons at all.

"In addition to the rich sensori-motor benefits early music playing may have on the developing brain, music training may also confer long-lasting benefits in complex cognitive functions," writes a team led by Kirsten Smayda of the University of Texas–Austin. "The music classes offered during many children's elementary and high-school education in America may result in improved decision-making ability as an adult."

In the journal Psychology of Music, Smayda and colleagues Bharath Chandrasekaran of UT–Austin and Darrell Worthy of Texas A&M, note that various regions of the brain develop at different rates. Specifically, they write that the prefrontal cortex—which is "a critical brain region for successful decision-making"—doesn't mature until relatively late in childhood.

Here is still more evidence that music training can yield cognitive benefits that apply far beyond the bandstand.

With that in mind, they designed an experiment featuring 69 people between the ages of 18 and 32, all recruited from the UT–Austin community. 

Participants were divided into three groups: Those who had "at least eight years of training beginning at, or before, age 8"; those who had the same amount, but began at age nine or later; and non-musicians, defined as people who had less than two years of musical training and were not playing an instrument.

All played a series of rounds of the Iowa Gambling Task, which is designed to simulate real-life decision making. Players are allotted an amount of money and presented with four decks of cards. They turn over one card at a time, and receive either a reward or a penalty.

Gradually, savvy players begin to realize that two of the decks are more likely to contain penalty cards, at which point they then gravitate to the remaining decks.

Players' scores were complied after five founds of 20 trials apiece. The result: Musicians who began training later than age eight performed significantly better than either non-musicians, or their musical peers who began lessons earlier in life.

"The performance advantage is observed in the last two blocks of the task, when the gains and losses associated with each deck have already been learned," the researchers note. This suggests the late-starting musicians were better able to apply the knowledge they had acquired.

Why would this be? "One possible explanation," the researchers write, "is that music training beginning late in childhood capitalizes on the period of significant maturation in the prefrontal cortex." That region of the brain, they note, has been tied to optimal performance on this gambling task.

"Introducing a novel skill that relies on the prefrontal cortex during this stage of rapid development can have a profound and positive impact on other functions," they conclude.

So here is still more evidence that music training can yield cognitive benefits that apply far beyond the bandstand. Learning an instrument is advantageous for all sorts of reasons, but these results suggest it is particularly valuable if you're training a new generation of decision-makers.