Playing Music Trains The Brain

By: Dr. Pascale Michelon

As you know the brain is plastic, that is the way brain cells grow and are wired together changes with our experiences. Although such neuroplasticity decreases with age, it is present throughout our lives. This is why what we do on a daily basis can have a huge impact on our brain health and good mental functioning. A recent study adds to this issue by showing that playing an instrument can decrease age-related hearing loss.

Are musicians’ brains different?
Zendel and colleagues (2011) measured the auditory abilities of 74 lifelong musicians and 89 non-musicians, aged between 18 and 91. A musician was defined as someone who has been playing at least since age 16, has received at least 6 years of formal musical training, and is still playing their instrument.
Participants performed several hearing tests, ranging from detecting sounds that grow increasingly quieter, to recognizing gaps in continuous sound and understanding  speech in a noisy environment.
All these faculties decline with age. The question was: Do musicians show less decline?
It was found that indeed musicians showed less age-related decline in most tasks although not in the detection of increasingly softer sounds, which measures hearing sensitivity. Musicians could better distinguish between sounds, recognize gaps and understand speech when several people were talking.

Why such differences?
Note that musicians were no better at the tasks that depended on the physical structure of the ear (such as microscopic hairs inside the cochlea, which atrophy with age). So playing music helps delay age-related changes that occur in the brain, in the regions that process sound.
This is likely the result of  neuroplasticity: Regularly playing an instrument stimulates sound processing areas in the brain to a great extent. Such stimulation may trigger brain cells growth as well as neural connections growth. Extra brain matter may then allows greater neural efficiency, or a better ability to compensate for the age-related loss via the recruitment of additional brain regions during audition processing.
In sum, extra-stimulation on a regular basis may trigger brain changes that  help increase brain reserve and may protect against age-related changes. A good reason to start exercising your brain asap!

Further reading on factors that may change your brain for the better:

Zendel, B. R. & Alain, C. (2011) Musicians experience less age-related decline in central auditory processing. Psychology and Aging, 26(3).

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