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Early Music Education May Enhance Life-Long Brain Development

Update Date: Feb 12, 2013 11:07 AM EST

If you played the recorder in first grade, you should thank your parents and music teacher now. A study conducted by researchers at Concordia University in Canada, the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany and McGill University in Canada found that musical training during early childhood helps create brain changes that can last for a person's whole life.

The study was conducted with a variety of groups. Thirty-six of the participants were musicians. Of those, half of them had been musically trained before the age of seven, while the other half started musical training later. However, both groups had been trained for the same amount of time, and had the same level of experience. These groups were compared with people who had received little or no musical training at all.

The researchers scanned the brains of all of the study participants. In addition, the participants needed to learn a motor skill. The motor skill had nothing to do with music. The researchers found that the musicians who had started training earlier were able to time the new motor skill more accurately, even after two days of training. Their brains were different as well: musicians who had begun training earlier had greater amounts of white matter in the corpus callosum, the portion of the brain that connects the left and right sides. In addition, the connectivity in the brain was proportionately related to how young the musicians were when they started training; the younger the musicians were, the more connectivity there was. These portions of the brain are also the ones that help people plan and carry out movements. Because the motor skill was not related to music, it indicates that the benefits of musical education extend far beyond the realm of just music.

 "Learning to play an instrument requires coordination between hands and with visual or auditory stimuli," Concordia University professor Virginia Penhune explained in a statement. "Practicing an instrument before age seven likely boosts the normal maturation of connections between motor and sensory regions of the brain, creating a framework upon which ongoing training can build."

Interestingly, researchers found no difference in connectivity between the brains of musicians who had trained later and the people who had no musical training at all. That indicates that the changes occur early in development, or not at all. The study strengthens the idea that the ages between six and eight years old are a critical period when musical training interacts with regular brain development, producing long-lasting brain changes.

However, Penhune notes, "it's important to remember that what we are showing is that early starters have some specific skills and differences in the brain that go along with that. But, these things don't necessarily make them better musicians. Musical performance is about skill, but it is also about communication, enthusiasm, style, and many other things that we don't measure. So, while starting early may help you express your genius, it probably won't make you a genius."

The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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