Trained musicians demonstrate greater executive control of attention compared to non-musicians, according to a new Chilean study published in the journal Heliyon. In fact, the more years of training musicians have, the better they are at controlling their attention.
The findings suggest that musical training leads to long-term improvements to a cognitive mechanism that allows individuals to be more attentive and less likely to be distracted by irrelevant stimuli while performing demanding tasks.
“Our study investigated the effects of systematic musical training on the main components of the attentional system. Our findings demonstrate greater inhibitory attentional control abilities in musicians than non-musicians,” said lead investigator Paulo Barraza, Ph.D., Center for Advanced Research in Education, at the University of Chile in Santiago.
“Professional musicians are able to more quickly and accurately respond to and focus on what is important to perform a task, and more effectively filter out incongruent and irrelevant stimuli than non-musicians. In addition, the advantages are enhanced with increased years of training.”
The attentional system involves three subsystems that are governed by distinct neural networks: alerting, orienting, and executive control networks.
The alerting function is associated with maintaining states of readiness for action; the orienting function is linked to the selection of sensory information and change of attentional focus; and the executive control function is involved both in the suppression of irrelevant, distracting stimuli and in top-down attentional control.
The findings also show a stronger link between the alerting and orienting networks in musicians compared to non-musicians, possibly derived from the deliberate practice of music.
For the study, the research team recorded the behavioral responses of 18 professional pianists and a matched group of 18 non-musician professional adults who engaged in an attentional networks test.
The musician group included full-time conservatory students or conservatory graduates from Conservatories of the Universidad de Chile, Universidad Mayor de Chile, and Universidad Austral de Chile, with an average of more than 12 years of practice.
“Non-musicians” were university students or graduates who had not had formal music lessons and could not play or read music.
The participants viewed and provided immediate feedback on rapidly presented image variations to test their reactions. Mean scores of the alerting, orienting, and executive networks for the group of musicians were 43.84 milliseconds (ms), 43.70 ms, and 53.83 ms; for the group of non-musicians mean scores were 41.98 ms, 51.56 ms, and 87.19 ms, respectively. The higher scores show less efficient inhibitory attentional control.
According to the investigators, this is the first study to test the effect of musical training on attentional networks, which adds to previous research about the potential effect of musical practice on the development of extra-musical cognitive skills.
“Our findings of the relationship between musical training and improvement of attentional skills could be useful in clinical or educational fields, for instance, in strengthening the ability of ADHD individuals to manage distractions or the development of school programs encouraging the development of cognitive abilities through the deliberate practice of music,” said co-investigator David Medina, B.Med., Department of Music, Metropolitan University of Educational Sciences in Santiago.
“Future longitudinal research should directly address these interpretations,” he said.