Musical training is becoming increasingly popular as a topic for scientific research. Is musical training a promising cognitive enhancer?
It is not surprisingly that musicians have been reported to be better than non-musicians in various music-related skills (see, Schellenberg et al., 2005; Zatorre, Chen & Penhune, 2007, for reviews on the topic). However, the most interesting question, the we addressed in a recent review, is whether, similarly to meditation and video gaming, musical training musical exercise generalizes to cognitive functions not directly or unrelated to musical abilities.
Learning to play an instrument induces structural and functional changes in the brain, due to the continuous activation of the brain regions underlying or engaged by this learning processes. A very recent study has shown that such an association between musical training and neuroplastic benefits extend to older individuals. Life-long musical engagement can potentially compensate for neuroplastic age-related declines in auditory brain processing associated with normal aging.
Making music with an instrument requires several skills involving executive functions: notes have to be played in the correct sequence, with the correct duration and the right temporal distance between them. Adult musicians compared to non-musicians showed enhanced performance on measures of cognitive flexibility and working memory, again supporting the hypothesis that musical training facilitates the development and maintenance of certain executive functions.
Processing speed and intelligence
Information processing speed is an important mental ability for learning. Musical training seems to have a beneficial effect on processing speed: Adolescents with years of active musical experience showed better performance in both visual and auditory information processing speed tasks than non-musicians. After 30 weeks children receiving music instruction improved in the Binet intelligence subscale involving spatial-temporal reasoning abilities. Along the same lines, Schellenberg found that music lessons, compared to drama lessons or no lessons, enhance IQ, as measured by WISC-III. Schellenberg in 2006 reported a long-lasting association between formal exposure to music in childhood and both IQ and academic performance.
Our review points to an association of musical training and enhanced cognitive performance. Even if in some cases the benefits were restricted to the auditory domain, the available studies suggest that musical experience is linked to benefits in unpracticed tasks and cognitive functions unrelated (or at least not obviously related) to musical abilities. our review sheds light on the potential association of musical training for optimizing cognition in general. Similarly to video game practice and meditation, musical engagement may be a useful cognitive training to promote cognitive enhancement in inexpensive, efficient, and healthy ways—perhaps even for those not genuinely interested in music. In particular, musical training may be a very valuable approach to counteract the deteriorative effect of aging on cognitive functioning.