Learning to play a musical instrument as a child boosts your brain function

First it was playing Mozart to ­babies to improve brain development – which was never really proved. And now ­Edinburgh University researchers in psychology and music are proposing that music in childhood boosts the adult brain.

Taking up a ­musical instrument in childhood and adolescence apparently results in improved ­thinking skills in older age.

And more experience of playing a musical instrument leads to a greater lifetime improvement in cognitive ability than less or no experience.

The test of cognitive ability – taken at age 11 and repeated at 70 – included questions requiring verbal reasoning, a tests of spatial awareness and numerical analysis.

Out of the 366 study participants, 117 played a musical instrument – mostly in childhood and adolescence. The most commonly played instrument was the piano, but many others were played too, such as the accordion, bagpipes, guitar and violin.

Now, for the first time, there’s evidence that playing an instrument is linked to small, but detectable, cognitive benefits over a lifetime.

The researchers were quick to say the results don’t prove musical training boosts cognitive ability because other factors, such as activities or parental influence, could have had a part to play too.

But it’s important to build on these ­findings and see which factors might also contribute to healthy brain ageing.

Emeritus Professor Ian Deary of Edinburgh University said: “We have to emphasise that the association we found between instrument playing and lifetime cognitive improvement was small, and that we cannot prove that the former caused the latter.

“However, as we and others search for the many small effects that might contribute towards some people’s brains ageing more healthily than others, these results are worth following up.”

Study participants were born in 1936 and had been tested on a number of physical and mental functions as they grew older, including retaking the cognitive ability test each took as an 11-year-old.

To find out if a musical childhood is related to healthy ageing, researchers asked people aged 70 about their lifetime in musical experiences, and looked for links between a person playing a musical instrument and changes in their thinking skills between ages 11 and 70.

Dr Judith Okely, psychologist at Napier University in Edinburgh, said: “These results add to the evidence that activities that are mentally ­challenging, such as learning to play a musical instrument, might be ­associated with having better thinking skills.”

Dr Katie Overy of Edinburgh’s Reid School of Music said: “Music has so much to offer as a fun, social activity – and it is exciting to find that learning to play a musical instrument may also contribute to healthy cognitive ageing.”