Listening to music is a great way to reduce stress and improve mood and motivation. While not everyone has time or the inclination to learn a musical instrument, it seems like some of the most intelligent and cognitively-flexible people we know have had some experience playing an instrument. What is it about learning music that seems to benefit the brain?
Comparing learning an instrument to listening to music, a recent study from the University of Bath finds that choosing to learn an instrument has significantly greater results in enhancing cognitive power. The study participants were assigned to learn an instrument, listen to music, or listen to music while doing other activities for one hour weekly over an 11-week period.
All groups improved their brain’s ability to work with multisensory information, benefiting all areas of life because the constant stream of audio and visual input from everyday life requires a large amount of cognitive horsepower. It was the group that learned to play an instrument (the piano) which showed the biggest gains when that audiovisual processing was put to the test to determine results. They had the best accuracy ratings when asked to determine when audio and visual input occurred in time, from distinguishing simple timing on a computer screen with sights and sounds all the way up to listening to another person speak.
The group that only listened to the music or listened to the music while doing other activities didn’t experience these results. Beyond the fast improvement in cognitive ability, the group who learned to play the piano through finger exercise and direct time playing a piano experienced better wellbeing and mood.
The researchers believe that the cognitive challenge of reading music, creating sounds through striking the keys, and using very precise tactile feedback results in an experience which is multisensory and primes the brain to use subsequent audiovisual input more efficiently. With such improvement in a small amount of time, learning to play an instrument as a hobby can sharpen brain power quickly, while lifting mood.
Yuqing Che, Crescent Jicol, Chris Ashwin, Karin Petrini. An RCT study showing few weeks of music lessons enhance audio-visual temporal processing. Scientific Reports, 2022; 12 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-23340-4