Music Lessons Linked to Lasting Brain Benefits

Music lessons early in life may have lasting benefits on the brain, a new study found.

The study of 45 young adults found those with at least one year of childhood musical training had enhanced neurological responses to sound, a trait tied to improved learning and listening abilities.

"There's good evidence that playing a musical instrument can profoundly affect the nervous system, but most of the studies have looked at people who are still playing," said study author Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern University. "This is the first study, to my knowledge, to look at the more typical scenario of people taking music lessons as kids."

Using tiny electrodes, Kraus and colleagues measured the brain's response to sound in Northwestern students with varying degrees of musical training - from none at all to 11 years of lessons. After controlling for IQ, they found people with at least one year of musical training were better at processing sound than those with no musical training.

"We know from previous studies that if you have a robust response to sound, you're generally a better learner," said Kraus. "You're better able to hear conversations in noisy places, your reading ability tends to be better and your auditory memory also seems to benefit. Those skills are important."

The small study, published today in the journal Neuroscience, suggests even a year's worth of music lessons can have lasting effects on brain function.

"To me - and this is just my scientific opinion based on converging evidence - those are dollars well spent," said Kraus.

How long do the effects last? That's the next study, Kraus said.

"Certainly the hypothesis to be tested now is whether these experiences in childhood continue to have a mark on the nervous system throughout people's lives," she said.