Music to the years

New study finds that music lessons before age seven create stronger interconnections in our brain

Little girl playing music

All parents who taught music to their seven-year-old kids did them a huge favour. Music enhances brain development and the younger you start music lessons, the stronger the connections in your brain.

A study published last month in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that musical training before the age of seven has a significant effect on the development of the brain, showing that those who began early had stronger connections between motor regions – the parts of the brain that help you plan and carry out movements.

This research was carried out by students in the laboratory of Concordia University, psychology professor Virginia Penhune, and in collaboration with Robert J. Zatorre, a researcher at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University.

The study proves that the years between ages six and eight are a ‘sensitive period’ when training in music. This training plays an important role in brain development and produces long-lasting changes in motor skills and brain structure. “Learning to play an instrument requires coordination between hands and with visual or auditory stimuli,” says Penhune. “Practicing an instrument before age seven likely boosts the normal maturation of connections between motor and sensory regions of the brain, creating a framework upon which ongoing training can build.”

For the study, the team enrolled 36 adult musicians for a movement task, and scanned their brains. Half of these musicians had their musical training before age seven, while the other half began at a later age. However, both groups had the same number of years of musical training and experience. The only difference was that the first group started lessons earlier. These two groups were also compared with individuals who had received little or no formal musical training.

A comparison of motor skills between the two groups revealed that musicians who began before age seven showed more accurate timing, even with two days of practice. Musicians who started early also showed more white matter in the corpus callosum or simply the bundle of nerve fibres that connect the left and right motor regions of the brain. This indicated that music materially affected the brain structure. Importantly, the researchers found that the younger a musician started, the greater the connectivity between the left and the right hemispheres of the brain was prevalent.

However, the brain scans showed no difference between the non-musicians and the musicians who began their training later in life. This also reflects that material benefit of the more evolved brain does not accrue unless you begin the music lessons very early.

“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,” says co-author, Dr. Zatorre.

The lead author Penhune, however also points out that “it’s important to remember that what we are showing is that early starters have some specific skills and differences in the brain that go along with that. But, these things don’t necessarily make them better musicians. Musical performance is about skill, but it is also about communication, enthusiasm, style, and many other things that we don't measure. So, while starting early may help you express your genius, it probably won’t make you a genius.”

Hopefully this study has answered the common question asked by most parents, when should they enrol their child for formal music lessons? And don’t fret, if your child stops going to the training sessions after a few years, chances are his brain will already be reaping the benefits of those early instructions.

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