Listening to music can reduce stress, boost immunity, and improve cognitive skills. But if you want an even bigger mental boost, learn to play an instrument.
Best of all, you don’t even have to be a talented musician to reap significant brain benefits…
Music can make us feel happy or sad; calm or energetic; exuberant or glum. For these reasons and more music greatly enriches people’s lives. But making music is a step up from listening to it because playing an instrument is demanding and engages various sensory and motor systems and many high-level cognitive processes throughout the brain.
Multisensory Improvements Result In A Stronger Brain
For instance, playing music usually involves a combination of reading the score, finger movement, and monitoring touch and sound feedback. It also involves changes in tempo, volume, expression, and other dynamics to convey the feeling and emotion of a song.
All this combines to create beautiful sounds—or not—that provide a multisensory training which benefits audio-visual and emotional processing in the brain.
It’s no surprise therefore that musicians have better multisensory processing abilities than non-musicians. Studies show that for musicians, years of training have given their brains stronger structural and functional connections. And these connections have applications well beyond music…
They’re crucial for daily cognitive functions and social interactions. They impact almost every activity we participate in – from driving a car and crossing a road, to finding someone in a crowd or watching a movie.
Of course, most studies to date have compared professional musicians with non-musicians or focused on the cognitive effects of listening to music or singing in a choir. But whether music training in beginning instrument players could also offer the same benefits was only recently explored using beginning piano players. The results of these studies are encouraging.
Playing Piano Boosts Memory And Lifts Mood
One study found four months of piano training brought about improvements in various aspects of cognition, significantly decreased depression and induced positive mood states in adults aged 60 to 84 when compared to the control group that engaged in painting, computer, and language lessons.
Another study found that after six months of piano training in adults aged 60 to 85, there were more robust gains in memory, verbal fluency, information processing, planning ability and other cognitive functions compared with the control group.
And, most recently, in a study published in November 2022, researchers at the University of Bath in England randomly assigned 31 men and women with an average age of 30 to either piano lessons, listening to music, or other nonmusical tasks such as reading.
The lessons took place once a week for eleven weeks and consisted of 20 minutes of finger exercises followed by 40 minutes of practicing simple pieces ranging from 18th century classical music to “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Every two weeks researchers tested the participants’ audio-visual judgment and emotional recognition. These tests continued for 13 weeks. Questionnaires regarding mood changes and other traits were also completed before and after the study.
Surprisingly Fast Results
Within just a few weeks of starting the piano lessons, the participants did a better job processing multisensory information and these audio-visual improvements extended beyond their musical abilities. The researchers did not find this cognitive boost in the other groups who were listening to music or performing nonmusical tasks.
In addition to enhanced cognition, the piano players experienced reduced depression, anxiety and stress scores after the piano training compared to before it.
Cognitive psychologist, music specialist and senior study author Dr. Karin Petrini explained, saying, “Learning to play an instrument like the piano is a complex task. In scientific terms, the process couples visual with auditory cues and results in a multisensory training for individuals.
“The findings from our study suggest that this has a significant, positive impact on how the brain processes audio-visual information even in adulthood when brain plasticity is reduced.”