Fine Tune Your Brain by Practicing the Piano

Scientists have known for a long time that playing a musical instrument strengthens memory and other areas of the brain, but were not certain as to why. Some have said that musical genius comes from hereditary genes, but now they are finding it comes from practice, and it takes approximately ten years of intense practice to be classified as an expert.

“Piano practicing fine tunes the brain circuitry that temporally bind signals from our senses,” according to a study conducted by researchers at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville and Michigan State University in Lansing. The team studied the role of working memory capacity and the ability of a piano player to sight-read a new piece of music — a complex and important musical skill.

According to the researchers, pianists use working memory when they read music. “They aren’t reading the notes their fingers are currently playing; they’re looking ahead to read the notes that are coming next,” according to Elizabeth J. Meinz of SIU and David Z. Hambrick of MSU. All musicians do this, they said.

Their study, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, asked pianists to sight read six pieces from a book of sight-reading tests, chosen for it’s rarity in the United States, with various levels of difficulty. Each pianist was judged on technical proficiency, musicality, and overall performance. They were also asked their piano-playing history, including how many hours per week they had practiced in each year they’d been playing, and took tasks that measured their working memory capacity.

Practice time was important, as was working memory capacity. “Practice is absolutely important to performance,” says Meinz. “But our study does suggest that cognitive abilities, particularly working memory capacity, might limit the ultimate level of performance that could be attained.”

In a similar study, researchers from the Max Plack Institute for Biological Cybernetics compared brain processing of stimulus from musicians and non-musicians from different senses. They also mapped the brain with an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to see which areas were most active while they listened to music. According to their findings, in pianists, “the visualization of asynchronous music and hand movements triggers increased error signals in areas of the brain involving the cerebellum, premotor and associative. The study shows that our sensorimotor experience influences the way in which the brain temporally links signals from different senses during perception,” they say.

Because our world is full of sensual stimuli, our brains are constantly linking impressions in a way that makes sense. The Planck Institute study how the brain integrates stimuli from several senses and shows how the circuits in the brain change as a result of learning. The window for the temporal integration of the stimuli in the pianists is clearly narrower than in non-musicians,” says HweeLing Lee of the Planck Institute.

It has long been known that the development of musical skills enhances memory and brain function. Learning to play a musical instrument is an excellent memory tool.

From the desk of Ron White

Memory Training


Science Daily – Playing Music Alters the Processing of Multiple Sensory Stimuli in the Brain:

Science Daily — Musicial Skills Reflects Working Memory Capacity in Addition to Practice Time:

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