Can learning a musical instrument give you a 'cognitive boost'?

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The cognitive benefits of learning a musical instrument may be down to the link between musical training and working memory, a study by an international research team has found.

Learning to play piano

The team, which included scientists from Goldsmiths, University of London and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics (MPIEA), set out to explore the question of whether musical training can improve other cognitive abilities.

The team focused on working memory, the ability to hold information in our minds and use it to perform a task, as this is a crucial component of all cognitive faculties. It is unclear from previous research if working memory has the same function for all brain regions or if it differs from one to the next: whether the regions and capacities that the brain uses for music, images, language, and mathematics are the same or different.

The research, reported in Music Perception, found that if musical training does have a positive effect on a person’s visual working memory it does so via the “detour” of improving their musical working memory. The study further showed that, conversely, a generally strong working memory makes musical training easier.

The team’s findings suggest that a direct causal link between musical training and any improvements to general cognitive faculties is unlikely. Instead, any link is likely to be indirect, with regions of the brain sharing a common component that influences both visual and musical working memory.

148 people, aged 18-50, were recruited for the study and took six different tests to compare their musical and visual working memories with their level of musical training.

Sebastian Silas, a postgraduate researcher in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths and corresponding author of the study, said: “It is very often reported or assumed that musical training improves other cognitive abilities, like working memory. Our reasonably novel application of causal modeling demonstrates that we need to be very careful with such ideas, as other plausible theories may have been overlooked.”

Peter Harrison of the MPIEA, senior author of the study, said: “Previous studies of the relationship between musical training and general cognitive abilities have tended to ignore musical memory. What we’ve done is to investigate these three factors by using the ‘causal modeling’ approach, a relatively new scientific method that makes it possible to determine causal relationships under specific conditions.”

The researchers say additional studies are needed to substantiate these results. These may include, for example, long-term studies in which individuals with and without musical training are compared in terms of their development of musical and cognitive abilities. Such research is being taken forward by Goldsmiths’ LongGold project.

This article is based on an original MPIEA press release.

A report of the research, entitled ‘The Associations Between Music Training, Musical Working Memory, and Visuospatial Working Memory’, is published in the journal Music Perception.