Using music to learn a physical task could help develop an important part of the brain, according to a study by the University of Edinburgh.
In the research, published in the journal Brain & Cognition, 30 right-handed volunteers aged 18 to 30 were split into two groups and then asked to learn a task that involved using their left-hand. One group learned with musical cues and the other without.
Both groups performed equally well after four weeks. But using MRI scans, the researchers saw that the music group had a significant increase in the structural changes of their arcuate fasciculus. This region of the brain is responsible for the white matter that links the hearing and motor regions in the right side of the brain. There was no such change in the non-music group.
"The study suggests that music makes a key difference,” lead author Dr Katie Overy said in a statement. “We have long known that music encourages people to move. This study provides the first experimental evidence that adding musical cues to learning new motor task can lead to changes in white matter structure in the brain."
None of the participants had more than six years of musical training, and none were currently learning to play an instrument. They had to tap out sequences on the finger and thumb of their left hand three times a week for 20 minutes over the four weeks. Data was recorded using a gaming glove, with software specifically designed for this study.
Dr Overy told IFLScience that the musical cues were "clear melodies with a steady beat." These were synced up to each finger movement, with pitch cues indicating which fingers to move.
Despite the small sample size (although that's often the case with MRI studies, which are expensive), the research is interesting. White matter is basically wiring that enables our brain cells to communicate with each other. Study co-author Rebecca Schaefer told IFLScience this was "exactly the connection we thought might be strengthened after learning a movement with music."
She added that the finding was important because it shows us how the type of learning affects learning-related brain changes, even when the end result is the same. "It is one of the first studies to show this within such a short time window (four weeks), and opens up many interesting questions for future research," she said.