A little music training in childhood goes a long way in improving how the brain functions in adulthood, according to a new study.
Compared to people with no musical training, adults with one to five years of musical training as children had enhanced brain responses to complex sounds, making them more effective at pulling out the fundamental frequency of the sound signal, researchers at Northwestern University report.
The fundamental frequency, which is the lowest frequency in sound, is crucial for speech and music perception, allowing recognition of sounds in complex and noisy auditory environments, according to the researchers.
“Musical training as children makes better listeners later in life,” said Dr. Nina Kraus, a professor of neurobiology, physiology and communication sciences at Northwestern.
“Based on what we already know about the ways that music helps shape the brain, the study suggests that short-term music lessons may enhance lifelong listening and learning. We help address a question on every parent’s mind: ‘Will my child benefit if she plays music for a short while but then quits training?’”
For the study, young adults with varying amounts of past musical training were tested by measuring electrical signals from the auditory brainstem in response to eight complex sounds ranging in pitch.
Because the brain signal is a faithful representation of the sound signal, researchers said they are able to observe how key elements of sound are captured by the nervous system and how these elements might be weakened or strengthened in different people with different experiences and abilities.
Researchers grouped 45 adults into three groups based on age, IQ and history of musical instruction. One group had no musical instruction, another had one to five years, and the last had six to 11 years.
Both musically trained groups began their lessons around age 9, a common age for in-school musical instruction to begin.
Researchers noted that, as predicted, musical training during childhood led to more robust neural processing of sounds later in life.
Prior research on highly trained musicians and bilingual people revealed that enhanced brainstem responses to sound are associated with heightened auditory perception, executive function, and auditory communication skills, according to Kraus.
“From this earlier research, we infer that a few years of music lessons also confer advantages in how one perceives and attends to sounds in everyday communication situations, such as noisy restaurants or rides on the ‘el,’” Kraus said.
A running theme in Kraus’ research is “your past shapes your present.”
“The way you hear sound today is dictated by the experiences with sound you’ve had up until today,” she said. “This new finding is a clear embodiment of this theme.”
The researchers hope their findings can help in the development of “effective and long-lasting” auditory-based educational and rehabilitative programs.
The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Source: Northwestern University