Kids who learn to play a musical instrument may benefit from superior attention and working memory in comparison to children that have no musical training, according to a new study in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience. Aside from outperforming their non-musical counterparts on cognitive tests, children who played in an orchestra or ensemble also displayed increased activation in certain key brain regions involved in executive functions.
The study authors recruited 40 children between the age of 10 and 13, half of whom had been practicing a musical instrument regularly for at least two years while the other half had no extra-curricular musical training. The young participants were then asked to complete a task that is designed to assess attention and working memory while the researchers scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
During the task, children were presented with both a visual and an auditory stimulus and asked to focus on one or both of these at a time. They were then tested on their ability to recall certain aspects of what they had just seen and heard.
Results showed that musical children consistently achieved higher scores on all memory challenges, and that this ability was correlated with greater activity in certain brain regions. For instance, those that played musical instruments typically displayed stronger activation in the frontoparietal control network, which is broadly associated with executive function and helps to coordinate sensory input in order to allow for the completion of cognitively demanding tasks.
Other brain regions that are linked to the auditory domain were also found to be more active in musically trained children. These include the inferior frontal gyrus and the supramarginal gyrus, both of which form part of the so-called phonological loop which is involved in auditory processing and working memory.
On top of that, children with a musical background also displayed significantly greater activation in the thalamus, a highly important brain region that processes sensory information and language, as well as playing a role in memory functions.
Based on these findings, the study authors suggest that learning a musical instrument at a young age generates greater cognitive flexibility, resulting in superior attention and working memory. In their write-up, they explain that “greater cognitive flexibility is associated with favorable outcomes throughout lifespan, such as higher resilience, improved reading abilities in childhood, higher creativity, and a better quality of life,” all of which really brings home the importance of practicing those scales as a kid.
Does that mean you should sign your child up to that trombone or drums class they've been begging for?
"Of course, I would recommend that," said lead author Dr Leonie Kausel, a violinist and neuroscientist. "However, I think parents should not only enroll their children because they expect that this will help them boost their cognitive functions, but because it is also an activity that, even when very demanding, will provide them with joy and the possibility to learn a universal language."