Picking up mistakes
The study, by researchers at the University of St Andrews, suggests that musical activity could protect against decline in mental abilities through age or illness.
The work, published in the journal Neuropsychologia, extends previous findings that mental abilities are positively related to musical skills. The researchers say that the latest findings demonstrate the potential for 'far reaching benefits' of musical activity on mental and physical well-being.
The study was led by St Andrews psychologist Dr Ines Jentzsch, who compared the cognitive ability of amateur musicians versus non-musicians in performing simple mental tasks.
The most striking difference she found lay in the musicians' ability to recognise and correct mistakes. Not only that, but they responded faster than those with little or no musical training, with no loss in accuracy. This is perhaps not surprising since musicians learn to be constantly aware of their performance, but to not be overly affected by mistakes.
Dr Jentzsch, a Reader in the University's School of Psychology and Neuroscience, commented, "Our study shows that even moderate levels of musical activity can benefit brain functioning.
"Our findings could have important implications as the processes involved are amongst the first to be affected by aging, as well as a number of mental illnesses such as depression. The research suggests that musical activity could be used as an effective intervention to slow, stop or even reverse age- or illness-related decline in mental functioning."
The study compared groups of amateur musicians with varying levels of time they had spent in practicing their instrument to a non-musician control group. They then measured each group's behavioural and brain responses to simple mental tests.
The results showed that playing a musical instrument, even at moderate levels, improves the ability to monitor our behavior for errors and adjust subsequent responses more effectively when needed.
Dr Jentzsch, herself a keen pianist, continued, "Musical activity cannot only immensely enrich our lives but the associated benefits for our physical and mental functioning could be even more far-reaching than proposed in our and previous research.
"Music plays an important role in virtually all societies. Nevertheless, in times of economic hardship, funds for music education are often amongst the first to be cut.
"We strongly encourage political decision makers to reconsider funding cuts for arts education and to increase public spending for music tuition.
"In addition, adults who have never played an instrument or felt too old to learn should be encouraged to take up music - it's never too late."