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Have you ever closely observed a musician while they are busy creating music? Perhaps a drummer, blissfully moving his body to his own drum beats. Or maybe a guitarist, lost in a trance as he plays an epic solo on his electric guitar. If you are a musician yourself, you probably know that feeling of intense joy one feels while playing an instrument. It can reduce stress, lift the blues and bring a sense of elation.
However, studies show that learning to play a musical instrument can not only make us really happy, it can also benefit our brains in many other unusual ways.
Our brain is a complex organ containing millions of nerve cells or neurons. Each neuron makes connections with several other neurons. How our brain functions depends on how our neurons are connected to each other. However, this wiring of our neurons is not fixed. Our experiences can bring about changes in these nerve connections. Therefore, our brain is said to be mouldable and this mouldability is called plasticity.
When we play music, many of our senses work together. We feel the instrument in our hands, we see the notes that need to be played, and hear the sounds we have created. MRI scans of the brain show that this musical experience can help form new nerve connections. Hence, learning to play music helps in the specialisation or growth of some parts of the brain - like the parts responsible for hearing sounds (auditory region), sight (visual region) and movement (motor region). But the story doesn’t end here. Interestingly, music has also been shown to influence parts of the brain that are seemingly unrelated to the musical experience - like parts associated with language learning, attention and memory. Although we don’t fully understand why this might be so, one reason could be that the auditory part of our brain (the part that gets activated when we play music) is very well-connected to many other areas in the brain (Musacchia and Khalil, 2020).
The human brain shows plasticity at all ages. However, the plasticity is known to be especially high during childhood. In fact, there exist specific periods in a child’s development, wherein the effects of an experience are unusually strong. These periods are called sensitive periods. For example, children learn a second language better, if it has been introduced by the age of 11–13 years.
Leaning music is one such experience, which has been shown to have a profound impact on a child’s brain. For example, when it comes to listening skills, children as young as 8 years of age, when musically trained, display an increased ability to differentiate between minor pitches. They have also been shown to perform better in vocabulary tests, are more focused on their goals, have better attention and working memory, and are better at switching between tasks (Miendlarzewska and Trost, 2014).
The increasing demands of life as we progress into adulthood can cause increased stress, anxiety and even depression in many individuals. Fortunately, a recent study shows that learning music can help us sail more peacefully through the ups and downs of adulthood.
The study involved participants in their 20s and 30s, who were divided into three groups. One group received a 1-hour piano lesson every week for 11 weeks. The second group only listened to music, and the third group read or studied a given material for the same time period. The participants were then given a variety of tests to check their audio-visual skills and levels of anxiety and stress.
When shown face-voice clips with a man mouthing the word ‘tomorrow’, the participants who were musically trained showed a higher ability to judge if the audio and visual were in sync. Not just this, these participants showed decreased levels of anxiety, depression and stress. The study also suggests that individuals, who showed traits of autism, may benefit more from the training (Che et al., 2022).
What’s also interesting about these results is that simply listening to music did not show the same benefits.
Our brains store thousands of memories of episodes that occur from day to day. Some of these are emotional, meaning they have a strong emotional basis to it. For example, the memory of your graduation day, or that of the day your first child was born. Some memories are, however, neutral - like the time at which you had your breakfast this morning. One of the cognitive skills that is most effected with age is the ability to recollect such episodic memories. However, a study published in Frontiers in Psychology shows, yet again, that music can come to the rescue when it comes to recollection of memories in the aged (Diaz Abrahan et al., 2019).
The participants in the study, who were aged between 60–90 years, were divided into two groups. The first group was told to improvise a musical pattern performed by an artist. The participants could, without restriction, choose any musical instrument and improvise the pattern. The second group, on the other hand, had to imitate the pattern as faithfully as possible. The participants were then showed several pictures and later asked to describe as many pictures as they could remember.
Interestingly, participants who were told to improvise the musical pattern were better able to recollect pictures which were emotionally arousing. Hence, they showed improved emotional memory. The researchers suggest that one reason for this could be that music can strongly trigger emotions and help activate parts of the brain that are associated with emotional content.
These studies shed light on the fact that learning a musical instrument can have many benefits for our brain, no matter which age group we belong to. It’s also interesting to note how we still don’t understand the full potential of our brain, and how certain activities (like learning music) can unlock our brain’s hidden potential. In the future, research might point us to many other such activities, which, just like music, might help enhance our brain’s potential.