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Learning to play piano boosts cognitive abilities

A new study led by the University of Bath has found that learning to play a musical instrument increases the brain’s ability to process sights and sounds, while at the time helps improving mental health. The experts showed that beginners who undertook piano lessons for just one hour per week for a period of 11 weeks reported not only significant improvements in recognizing audio-visual changes in their environment, but also less stress, depression, and anxiety.

The researchers assigned 31 participants with no prior musical experience into either a music training, music listening, or control group. While the intervention groups played music, the control groups either listened to music or engaged in reading or studying.

The investigation revealed that, within a few weeks of starting piano lessons, participants’ ability to process multisensory information was significantly enhanced. These multisensory improvements – which have benefits for nearly every activity that we engage in, ranging from driving a car or crossing a road to finding someone in a crowd or watching TV – extended well beyond musical activities. 

With musical training, participants’ audio-visual skills became more accurate across a variety of tasks, including tests where people were asked to determine whether auditory or visual events occurred at the same time. This happened for both simple displays of flashes and beeps, and for more complex situations, such as observing a person talking. Such an enhancement of individuals’ cognitive abilities was not present for the music listening group, where participants listened to the same music as the one played by the music group, or for the non-music group, where members read or studied.

Moreover, the scientists discovered that participants also had reduced depression, stress, and anxiety after the musical training, suggesting that learning to play an instrument could be beneficial for people with mental health issues.

“We know that playing and listening to music often brings joy to our lives, but with this study we were interested in learning more about the direct effects a short period of music learning can have on our cognitive abilities,” explained study senior author Karin Petrini, a cognitive psychologist and music expert at Bath.

“Learning to play an instrument like the piano is a complex task: it requires a musician to read a score, generate movements, and monitor the auditory and tactile feedback to adjust their further actions. 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,” she concluded.

The study is published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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