The University of Bath has published a new study showing how learning to play a musical instrument can see a marked improvement in participants’ audio-visual stimulation and a reduction in the amount of stress and anxiety they feel.
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.
The University of Bath researchers were PhD student Yuqing Che; Crescent Jicol, Lecturer in Computer Science; Chris Ashwin, Lecturer in Cognitive Psychology; and Karin Petrini Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor in Experimental and Cognitive Psychology.
This was a randomised control study (RCT) – a study that measures the effectiveness of a new intervention by examining cause-effect relationships between an intervention and outcome – where 31 young 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. While the intervention groups played music, the control groups either listened to music or used the time to complete homework. But what makes this study different from ones done previously is that firstly all participants had no prior music knowledge; secondly all of them were tested before and after their training (or music listening, or the control group; and thirdly they were tested on mental health variables.
Co-author Chris Ashwin explains, “We measured them beforehand on their multi sensory (audio visual) processing, emotional processing and some mental health measures, before running the active musical training. music listening and control group exposure for 11 weeks. And then we tested them to see the actual effects of the music training on these different groups.”
Music Training Sessions Each music training session included two segments. The first 20-minute segment was dedicated to finger exercise. The second segment lasted for 40 minutes. All training sessions were carried out on a one-to-one basis. Participants learned these pieces in the order 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.
It was found that within just a few weeks of starting lessons, people’s ability to process multisensory information – meaning 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 were also found to extend 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.
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.”
Following on from this research, the university has plans to undertake further research on the power of music training by comparing a group of austistic participants with a group of neurotypical people.
The full study – ‘An RCT study showing few weeks of music lessons enhance audio-visual temporal processing’ can be seen on nature.com. Both autistic and neurotypical people are invited to sign up for the University of Bath’s participant database to hear about some of the studies and have the opportunity to take part. Sign up at bath.ac.uk