Even if children abandon their music lessons when they hit their angsty teen years, cognitive neuroscientists say cultivating musical ability early on has lifelong benefits. Playing music can help children read better, store memories, and pronounce different languages.
In a recent study, scientists reveal further evidence supporting this brain-building tactic. Learning music early in life actually makes the brain more connected, inducing neural plasticity capable of improving neurological capabilities beyond music.
"This study, among other studies, demonstrate how the human brain is shaped by experience," study co-author Lutz Jäncke tells Inverse. Jäncke is a neuropsychology researcher at the University of Zurich.
In the study, Jäncke and his team found that musical brains have stronger structural and functional connections compared to those of non-musicians, regardless of their innate pitch ability.
This heightened interconnectedness spans between and within brain hemispheres and was especially strong in areas of the brain responsible for processing sounds such as music and speech.
"... the human brain is shaped by experience."
Music is not the only practice that prompts these connections, nor is interconnectedness a benefit only experienced by the young. Researchers have observed similar, positive brain changes induced by other activities — including ballet, golf, and chess — at any age. Learning any challenging skill has brain benefits regardless of when you start.
"The findings matter for any kind of expertise in all areas where one can improve through intensive, long-time training," study co-author Simon Leipold tells Inverse. Leipold is a psychiatry researcher at Stanford University.
"By training, we can change the way our brains are wired."
The findings were published Monday in the Journal of Neuroscience.
What's new — Previous studies exploring how music influences the structure and function of the brain have produced varied results. Some suggest certain parts of musicians' brains are larger and they show extraordinary listening abilities. However, many studies have been relatively small, limiting their broader implications.
To push the field forward, Leipold, Jäncke, and their colleagues recruited 103 professional musicians and 50 non-musicians, the largest musician sample size to date for a brain imaging study. Fifty-one of the musicians possessed absolute pitch, the rare and coveted ability to identify a tone without a reference.
The team utilized resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging, structural magnetic resonance imaging, and diffusion tensor imaging to calculate connections within participants' brains.
Using "state of the art" machine learning techniques, the team subsequently compared the brain scans between musicians, musicians with absolute pitch, and non-musicians — finding similar brain networks between those who played music.
How are the brains of musicians different?
The two musician groups showed "strikingly similar networks" across all analyses, Jäncke explains. But contrary to expectation, the team did not see a significant difference between regular musicians and those with absolute pitch across all functional or structural connectivity measures.
All of the musicians' brains were vastly more structurally and functionally connected than non-musicians, especially in areas of the brain responsible for speech and sound (especially the auditory cortices of both hemispheres). These connections "undoubtedly" improve the group's musical abilities, Leipold explains.
The musical group also showed stronger connections from the auditory cortices to other brain areas in the frontal, parietal, and temporal cortex known to be involved in the control of higher cognitive functions like memory, working memory, and executive functions.
Why this matters — This finding suggests stronger connections from musical expertise may have "transfer effects" on other domains like language learning or intelligence, although other research suggests the differences are "minimal," Leipold explains.
"The earlier the musicians had started with musical practice, the stronger these connectivities," Jäncke says. The age someone picks up a violin or trombone is an important aspect for "shaping the brain and installing extraordinary functions," he adds.
"Early music training might affect the brain at different levels, locally and more globally," Leipold says.
Such positive neural connections can also stem from other activities, not just music.
"We have seen similar findings in our studies on golf players, ballet dancers, interpreters, and chess players," Jäncke says.
The time training musically isn't the only factor at play.
"The current state of research suggests a highly complex interaction between genetics and environmental factors in the emergence of musical expertise," Leipold says.
Ultimately, the findings bolster evidence that learning new things, especially a musical instrument, has tremendously positive effects on the growing brain. Leipold himself learned to play piano as a child, although he notes now, he is "far from a highly-trained musician."
"If someone told me then about the possibility of changing the wiring of my brain, I might have spent more time practicing the piano and less time on the soccer field," Leipold reflects.
Abstract: Professional musicians are a popular model for investigating experience-dependent plasticity in human large-scale brain networks. A minority of musicians possess absolute pitch, the ability to name a tone without reference. The study of absolute pitch musicians provides insights into how a very specific talent is reflected in brain networks. Previous studies of the effects of musicianship and absolute pitch on large-scale brain networks have yielded highly heterogeneous findings regarding the localization and direction of the effects. This heterogeneity was likely influenced by small samples and vastly different methodological approaches. Here, we conducted a comprehensive multimodal assessment of effects of musicianship and absolute pitch on intrinsic functional and structural connectivity using a variety of commonly employed and state-of-the-art multivariate methods in the largest sample to date (n = 153 female and male human participants; 52 absolute pitch musicians, 51 non-absolute pitch musicians, and 50 non-musicians). Our results show robust effects of musicianship in inter- and intrahemispheric connectivity in both structural and functional networks. Crucially, most of the effects were replicable in both musicians with and without absolute pitch when compared to non-musicians. However, we did not find evidence for an effect of absolute pitch on intrinsic functional or structural connectivity in our data: The two musician groups showed strikingly similar networks across all analyses. Our results suggest that long-term musical training is associated with robust changes in large-scale brain networks. The effects of absolute pitch on neural networks might be subtle, requiring very large samples or task-based experiments to be detected.