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Does Playing a Musical Instrument Make You Smarter?

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Material for this blog comes from a recent article I just read entitled  “Does Playing a Musical Instrument Make You Smarter?” – written by Christopher Bergland for Psychology Today.

Albert Einstein began playing the violin at age 6.  By age 13, he was playing Mozart’s sonatas.


Musical Training Improves Executive Functions
A new study from Boston Children’s Hospital found a correlation between musical training and improved cognitive abilities in both children and adults.  Previous studies have identified a link between musical training and cognitive abilities, but few have looked specifically at the effects of early musical training on executive function (which includes cognitive flexibility, working memory and processing speed).

Adult musicians and musically trained children in the new Boston study showed enhanced performance on several aspects of executive functioning.


As stated in the Psychology Today article:  “Executive functions (EF) are described as high-level cognitive processes that enable people to quickly process and retain information, regulate their behaviors, make good choices, solve problems, plan, and adjust to changing mental demands.  Another component of EF is having cognitive flexibility as represented by the ability to adjust to novel or changing tasks on demand.”

The Boston study concluded that children and adults with extensive musical training showed enhanced executive function when compared to non-musicians, especially for cognitive flexibility, working memory, and processing speed.


Musical Training Might Improve Academic Achievement
The neuroscientists used functional MRI brain imaging in their controlled study to reveal a possible biological link between early musical training and improved executive functioning.  Executive functioning is a strong predictor of academic achievement.


Three Brain Benefits of Musical Training
1.  Musicians have an enhanced ability to integrate sensory information from hearing, touch, and sight.

2.  Beginning musical training before the age of seven has the greatest impact. The age at which musical training begins affects brain anatomy as an adult.

3.  Brain circuits involved in musical improvisation are shaped by systematic training, resulting in less reliance on working memory and more extensive connectivity within the brain (the  supplementary motor area, pre-supplementary area, and right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex).

Scientists have found that musical training can increase the blood flow in the left hemisphere of the brain, suggesting that the areas responsible for music and language might share common brain pathways.


Musical Training Increases Blood Flow to the Brain
A study from the University of Liverpool  (conducted in May 2014) found that musical training can increase the blood flow in the left hemisphere of the brain.  This finding suggests that the areas responsible for music and language might share common brain pathways.

The researchers noted that children who play a musical instrument may already have executive functioning abilities that somehow attract them to music and predispose them to stick with their lessons.


Pros and Cons: 

Pros:   Having been a pianist all my life, I can attest to the fact that musical training improves the brain, from executive function to academic achievement.  I’m in total agreement with the article in Psychology Today.  My advice would be to learn a new musical instrument, or learn a new musical composition on the instrument that you already know how to play.  And enjoy all your firing neurons!  Neuroscientists in another recent study have shown that all your brain neurons fire when you play a musical instrument!  So why not impress all your friends and do your brain a big favor at the same time?

Cons:   None that I can think of.


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Comments (4) on "Does Playing a Musical Instrument Make You Smarter?"

  1. Hello Monique, thanks for this really clear and understanding article. I have never thought this was real until the end of this article and I’m still very much amazed and would either start learning to play the piano again because I’m happy seeing the benefits that come with playing one. Nice idea

    1. Hi Justin:

      Terrific!  Good luck with the piano!   You’ll love it.  I’m glad I was able to convince you that it will be good for your brain.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful and encouraging article, Monique. Do you think it makes any difference what instrument you play, or what genre? Classical music on a piano versus a slow, 12-bar blues on guitar (a la Robert Johnson’s Love in Vain, the Rolling Stones live version from Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out), for instance. I ask because I’m a guitar player and I’m not too smart. 😉

    1. Thanks for your comment, Tim. I think that music training on any instrument is good for your brain. Of course, they say that classical music training is the best, that’s why it is suggested to let children be classically trained on an instrument. But I feel that learning to play any musical instrument is excellent for your memory and your brain health in general.

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