Piano Street Magazine

New Study: Playing the Piano Boosts Brain Processing Power

December 4th, 2022 in Piano News by | 3 comments

A new study published by researchers at the University of Bath demonstrates the positive impact learning to play a musical instrument has on the brain’s ability to process sights and sounds, and shows how it can also help to lift a blue mood.

Publishing their findings in the academic journal Nature Scientific Reports, the team behind the study shows how beginners who undertook piano lessons for just one hour a week over 11 weeks reported significant improvements in recognising audio-visual changes in the environment and reported less depression, stress and anxiety.

In the randomised control study, 31 adults were assigned into either a music training, music listening, or a control group. Individuals with no prior musical experiences or training were instructed to complete weekly one-hour sessions. Whilst the intervention groups played music, the control groups either listened to music or used the time to complete homework.

The researchers found that within just a few weeks of starting lessons*, people’s ability to process multisensory information – i.e., sight and sound – was enhanced. Improved ‘multisensory process’ has benefits for almost every activity we participate in – from driving a car and crossing a road, to finding someone in a crowd or watching TV.

These multisensory improvements extended beyond musical abilities. With musical training, people’s audio-visual processing became more accurate across other tasks. Those who received piano lessons showed greater accuracy in tests where participants were asked to determine whether sound and vision ‘events’ occurred at the same time.

This was true both for simple displays presenting flashes and beeps, and for more complex displays showing a person talking. Such fine-tuning of individuals’ cognitive abilities was not present for the music listening group (where participants listened to the same music as played by the music group), or for the non-music group (where members studied or read).

In addition, the findings went beyond improvements in cognitive abilities, showing that participants also had reduced depression, anxiety and stress scores after the training compared to before it. The authors suggest that music training could be beneficial for people with mental health difficulties, and further research is currently underway to test this.

Cognitive psychologist and music specialist Dr Karin Petrini from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology, explained: “We know that playing and listening to music often brings joy to our lives, but with this study we were interested in learning more about the direct effects a short period of music learning can have on our cognitive abilities.

“Learning to play an instrument like the piano is a complex task: it requires a musician to read a score, generate movements and monitor the auditory and tactile feedback to adjust their further actions. In scientific terms, the process couples visual with auditory cues and results in a multisensory training for individuals.

“The findings from our study suggest that this has a significant, positive impact on how the brain processes audio-visual information even in adulthood when brain plasticity is reduced.”

Each music training session included two segments. The first 20-minute segment was dedicated to finger exercise. The second segment consisted of learning songs from the ABRSM 2017-2018 piano grade one exam list for 40 minutes. All training sessions were carried out on a one-to-one basis. Participants learned these pieces in the order presented below. They proceeded to the next song once they could play the former one correctly and fluently:

William Gillock A Stately Sarabande. Classic Piano Repertoire (Elementary).
Johann Christian Bach Aria in F, BWV Anh. II 131.
Giuseppe Verdi La donna è mobile (from Rigoletto).
Bryan Kelly Gypsy Song: No. 6 from A Baker’s Dozen.
Traditional American Folk Song: When the saints go marching in.

The full study – ‘An RCT study showing few weeks of music lessons enhance audio-visual temporal processing’ – was authored by Yuqing Che, Crescent Jicol, Chris Ashwin and Karin Petrini from the University of Bath.

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  • Daniel Dunn says:

    I have been playing the piano for 67 years , taking lessons for 8 years and continuing on my own .
    Along the way , I have composed a number of pieces …. one of such is being played at the Holocaust
    Museum in Washington …. not too bad for someone who failed the 5th grade.
    It was Albert Einstein who said : Knowledge is not the sign of intelligence …. it is imagination !

  • Mary brown says:

    Wow, I your article gives me more inspiration to carry on learning music. I’m an elderly lady, started piano lessons, during covid period. I played initial grade last year exams, and received merit. My concentration has improved remarkably, I worry less about senseless things, whilst having fun on my piano.

  • Selwyn Parker says:

    Selwyn Parker writes:
    I can vouch for the truth of this highly enlightening research from my own example. It is impossible to play the piano and feel depressed, anxious, worried, bored or have any other negative emotions. Why? In my view it’s because piano playing takes you out of yourself by requiring you to concentrate and by giving yourself the sheer pleasure and joy of performing. I’m 81 and took up the piano again about 20 years ago and now play one or two hours every day and give small concerts. The piano has become a passion and it’s passions that keep us young.

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