Playing music keeps your brain sharp.
Musicians may also be more mentally alert, according to new research. A University of Montreal study, slated to appear in the February issue of the journal Brain and Cognition, shows that musicians have significantly faster reaction times than non-musicians.
The findings suggest that learning to play a musical instrument could keep your brain sharp as you age, and may help to prevent certain aspects of cognitive decline in older adults.
“As people get older, for example, we know their reaction times get slower,” Simon Landry, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. student in biomedical ethics, said in a statement. “So if we know that playing a musical instrument increases reaction times, then maybe playing an instrument will be helpful for them.”
For the small study, the researchers compared the reaction times of 19 non-musician students and 16 student musicians who had been recruited from the university’s music program and had been playing an instrument for at least seven years. The participants included violinists, percussionists, a viola player and a harpist.
"We're only now starting to better understand the benefits of musical training and they seem to range beyond simply playing music." Simon Landry, Ph.D. student at the University of Montreal
Each participant was seated in a quiet room and asked to keep one hand on a computer mouse and the other on a small box that occasionally vibrated silently. The participants were instructed to click on the mouse when the box vibrated, when they heard a sound from the speakers in front of them or when both things happened at once. The stimulations were done 180 times each.
As hypothesized, the musicians had significantly faster reaction times to non-musical auditory, tactile and multisensory stimuli than the non-musicians.
Landry says this is likely because playing music involves multiple senses. With touch, for instance, a violin player has to feel the string on her finger, but she also needs to listen for the right sound to be produced when she’s pressing on the string.
“This long-term training of the sense in the context of producing exactly what is desired musically leads to a strengthening of sensory neural pathways,” Landry told The Huffington Post. “Additionally, using the senses in synchronicity for long periods of time ― musicians practice for years ― enhances how they work together. All this would lead to the faster multisensory reaction time.”
Previously, Landry also investigated how musicians’ brains process sensory illusions. Together with their previous findings, the results suggest that musicians are better at integrating input from various senses, the study’s authors noted. More studies are needed, however, to determine whether and how musical training might slow the natural cognitive decline that occurs as we age.
“Playing a musical instrument has an effect on abilities beyond music,” Landry concluded. “We’re only now starting to better understand the benefits of musical training and they seem to range beyond simply playing music.”
If you needed any more reason to pick up an instrument, check out this TEDEd video on how playing music benefits your brain: