music and the mind

A new study revealed a positive effect on memory, attention and executive function

More than ever, a successful 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.

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.

We spoke to Katherine Sledge Moore, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Arcadia University:

A: Thank you again for agreeing to answer a few questions about your study! I have to warn you I have no scientific background but shall do my best! What was your original motivation for the study? Did you have a previous idea or evidence that musicians would possess the qualities that you were testing for?

K. There was a lot of pre-existing evidence that musicians possess superior cognitive functions that would pertain to fluid cognition. We decided to perform this study in order to examine how well this particular measurement–the NIH cognitive toolbox–would observe these differences, with the thought it is an instrument that could be used in further research.

A: Who were the people that you tested? How many? Background?

K. We tested 72 participants who were students at Elmhurst College, where I was working and where first author Jim Meyer was a student. Some students had no musical background, others had a bit of musical background, and the “musician” group included music majors who started formal training by the age of 10 and who had been studying music for at least 10 years.

A: Can you give an example of a question you asked the students?

K. There were a few skills that we tested. One example is the flanker inhibitory control and attention test. This test measures attention and one’s ability to inhibit – also a skill used in musical performance and integral in everyday life. In this task, participants were required to do a simple task – decide as quickly as possible whether an arrow presented on the screen is pointing upward or downward. However, on some of the trials, the arrow was surrounded by arrows pointing in the opposite direction. So attention is required to focus on the correct arrow and block out other stimuli. Inhibition is required to make sure that you don’t accidentally respond to the wrong arrow.

A: One article has mentioned the standardized testing was identifying “fluid intelligence.” What is fluid intelligence?

K. Fluid intelligence refers to a set of skills such as working memory, processing speed, logical reasoning, and pattern recognition. It is independent of knowledge.

A: What elements of musical practice develop these qualities in cognitive function?

K. While we can’t answer with certainty exactly how musical training and which aspects of it might develop cognitive skills, we can speculate. Practicing an instrument involves the following skills and more — multitasking (e.g. separating left / right hand actions), planning ahead (e.g. choosing the appropriate fingering to execute a sequence), memorization, reading (e.g. music; learning a language), listening (e.g. to be in time and tune with the ensemble), and attention (e.g. to get ready for a cue).

A: Is the impact of music on childhood brain development time-sensitive? Does a small amount of music education still have some positive impact or does it have to be a sustained practice over time?

K. Our research suggests that it’s the extended practice and early start that are both important for observing the difference in fluid intelligence. However, other researchers have shown that cognitive benefits can be observed even with small amounts of training, or with training acquired only as an adult.

A: Are the skills acquired through music training permanent? Or do you loose these?

K. I think it really depends on which skills and which musical training we’re talking about. My guess is that especially some of the early training we receive might cause permanent changes in the brain that are related to cognitive skills. However, with most things having to do with the brain, cognition, and exercise, you have to use it or you will lose it. It is likely continued musical training will help preserve cognitive enhancements.

A: It seems the study focused on executive function (memory, reasoning, problem solving). I imagine learning and instrument also would develop motor skills and auditory processing? (maybe?) Did your study test any of these other aspects?

K. This is absolutely true! We didn’t test those skills in our study, but many other studies have showed enhanced fine motor skills and auditory processing with musical training.

A: Chicken or the egg? Do people who possess these qualities better excel in music, or is it the process of learning music developing the qualities?

K. That’s a great question! It is impossible to know based on our study and any other study that uses the same design, in which the researchers recruit trained musicians and non-musicians. Musicians may differ from the rest of the population because they already possessed traits that may have led them to study music in the first place. However, there are some studies that are performed using an experimental design, in which participants who have no training are assigned randomly to different conditions such as musical training, sports training, and acting classes. In this kind of design, there has been plenty of evidence that musical training does improve cognition compared to other comparison activities.

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, school administrators, policy writers, take note!

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