Learning music boosts motor skills

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If you're going to sign your child up for music lessons, you will want to do it sooner rather than later.

Researchers in Canada found music training strengthens connections between the areas of a child's brain that are responsible for movement, but this only happens if the child picks up an instrument before the age of seven.

"Learning to play an instrument requires coordination between hands and with visual or auditory stimuli," study co-author Virginia Penhune, a psychology professor at Concordia University and a member of the Centre for Research in Human Development, said.

She explained that beginning music training early in childhood probably helps boost brain connections that are vital for improvements later on.

How the study was done

The researchers assessed the performance of 36 adult musicians who completed a non-musical motor skill task. The participants also underwent a brain scan.

Although all the musicians had the same number of years of training, the researchers pointed out half of them began their training before they were 7. The other half started taking music lessons when they were older. The researchers also compared both groups of musicians to people who had little or no formal musical training.

Although both groups of musicians had two days of practice, the study revealed that those who began their musical training before they were 7 had better timing on the motor task. The brain scans also showed the musicians who started music lessons at a younger age had enhanced white matter in the corpus callosum, a group of nerve fibers connecting the left and right motor regions of the brain.

Long term changes in children's brain

The findings indicate that musical training between the ages of 6 and 8 can result in long-term changes to children's brain structure and motor skills. The study authors said the earlier the musicians began their musical training, the stronger the connections between the areas of their brain responsible for movement.

In contrast, the brain scans of the musicians who began their music lessons later in life were no different than the scans of those with little or no musical training. The researchers concluded music lessons can only boost brain development early in life.

"This study is significant in showing that training is more effective at early ages because certain aspects of brain anatomy are more sensitive to changes at those time points," study co-author Robert Zatorre, a researcher at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University, who is also the co-director of the International Laboratory for Brain Music and Sound Research, said.

Benefits of early music training

The study authors pointed out that because the musicians were given a non-musical motor task, the benefits of early musical training can apply to more than playing an instrument. Although early musical training can boost brain development, they added it doesn't necessarily make people better musicians.

"Musical performance is about skill, but it is also about communication, enthusiasm, style and many other things that we don't measure," Perhune said. "So, while starting early may help you express your genius, it probably won't make you a genius."

The study was published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience.

More information

The US National Institute of Mental Health has more about childhood brain development.

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