Research suggests the brain undergoes immediate changes in response to a single experience of picking up an instrument and trying to produce a specific musical tone. The findings indicate the astonishing plasticity of the brain, which is able to rewire itself after just one challenging effort. This suggests that musical training might help older individuals seeking ways to avoid cognitive decline.

Researchers studied the brain waves of a small group of adults as they listened to the recorded sounds of a bell ringing. Half of the group was asked to play a bell with a mallet in an attempt to recreate the sounds they had heard. The other half of participants merely pushed a computer key to hear a repeat of the bell recording.

Both groups then listened to the bell recording once again. A comparison of the two groups of participants revealed that those who actively tried to reproduce the note they had heard using a bell and mallet had experienced immediate and significant alterations in their brain activity that indicated improvements in listening and hearing skills, while the computer group’s brain waves indicated no change.

“It has been hypothesized that the act of playing music requires many brain systems to work together, such as the hearing, motor and perception systems,” said the senior author of the study, which was published in the Journal of Neuroscience. This study was the first time we saw direct changes in the brain after one session, demonstrating that the action of creating music leads to a strong change in brain activity.

Earlier research has suggested that people who play a musical instrument in older adulthood are 36% less likely to experience cognitive impairment or dementia.


This article originally appeared in Mind, Mood & Memory, a publication of the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, dedicated to maintaining mental fitness for middle age and beyond.

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