There appears there is a payoff for all those music lessons you and your family may have had to endure when you were a child.
A study recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that learning to play a musical instrument before the age of seven has a significant effect on brain development, in a positive way. Whether it is learning to play a recorder or a piano, playing requires motor coordination along with taking in visual and auditory stimuli.
It is that early musical training that appears to lead to long lasting changes in motor ability and actual brain structure.
In this study, 36 adult musicians had their brains scanned while undertaking a movement task. All had received the same total number of years training and experience in music but half had commenced before the age of seven and half had begun at a later age.
This group was then also compared to a control group of individuals who had received either little or no formal musical training.
What they found was that those who had commenced early training showed more accurate timing even after two days of practice. They also had enhanced white matter (or connections) in the corpus callosum, the tract of white matter that connects the left and right motor regions of the brain.
It appears that the younger the age of commencing musical training, the greater the connectivity. According to the researchers, it is this additional connectivity that can then act as a scaffold for ongoing experience to then build on.
The non-musicians showed no change on brain scan in the movement task, so perhaps this brain development happens either early or not at all.
What the study doesn’t demonstrate is whether early training will create a naturally gifted or talented musician. Certainly my early efforts at the recorder were woeful. It wasn’t a joyful experience, which would suggest that along with developing the motor skills, those who do advance to become more proficient or professional musicians may also have shared other attributes to lead them down that particular path.
Steele CJ, Bailey JA, Zatorre RJ, Penhune VB. “Early Musical Training and White-Matter Plasticity in the Corpus Callosum: Evidence for a Sensitive Period. “ J Neurosci. 2013 Jan 16;33(3):1282-90.