Later musical training linked to improved decision-making skills

Lucy Cai

Although experts have long noted that music can enhance brain function, a recent study conducted at UT-Austin suggests that the age at which musical training begins also matters.

The researchers found that late-trained musicians performed better on cognitive decision-making tasks than early-trained musicians or non-musicians.

Psychology graduate student Kirsten Smayda and her team, which included communication sciences and disorders professor Bharath Chandrasekaran, asked nearly 70 UT-Austin students to participate in the Iowa Gambling Task to assess decision-making skills. Participants selected cards from four decks for points. Unknown to the participants, two of the decks offered more reward than penalty, while the other two offered more penalty than reward. Afterwards, the researchers analyzed the decks that participants chose most often.

Participants who had never played an instrument were classified as non-musicians, those who had started musical training before the age of eight as early-trained musicians and those who had started musical training after the age of eight as late-trained musicians.

“We found that the age at which (participants) began playing music in childhood significantly correlated with their overall performance,” Smayda said. “The later they began, the better they did on the Iowa Gambling Task.”

Although there’s no evidence yet for a causal link between age and decision-making skills, improved cognitive performance following later acquisition of musical training may be due to the maturation of the prefrontal cortex, which occurs very rapidly during late childhood.

“The reason we came up with this is that the skillsets that you need for cognitive decision-making rely on brain structures that have a very protracted development,” Chandrasekaran said. “And there are spurts in this development in the time that the individuals are also learning music. And (during this time) you’re learning more cognitive strategies that may help with the development of these brain structures.”

Exercising the prefrontal cortex, by learning how to play an instrument, during this critical period rather than before may confer more long-lasting cognitive benefits.

Smayda and her team first became interested in how music affects cognition after reading about other work in the field. Previous research indicated that starting musical training during early childhood or when the sensorimotor region of the brain is developing can improve motor skills.

Based on this information, Smayda hypothesized that starting musical training when the prefrontal cortex is developing most rapidly – late childhood – would improve cognitive skills.

The results, however, are still very complex, according to Chandrasekaran.

“Early-trained musicians are still better musicians,” Chandrasekaran said. “Early training leads to better working memory and selective attention. Later training is better for decision-making. (Cognition) is all very multi-dimensional.”

In addition, music can impact areas other than motor and cognitive skills, such as perceptual abilities. For example, musicians have better fidelity of sound than non-musicians, Chandrasekaran said.

The team’s work on cognitive function and musical training has broader implications.

Smayda is currently studying whether or not group piano lessons can improve seniors’ ability to hear in noisy, crowded places. Hearing effectively in these settings has both strong perceptual components, such as through taking in the sound itself, and strong cognitive components, such as through paying selective attention.

Improving seniors’ hearing has important implications for their well-being.

“If older adults can’t hear as well in these social environments, they’re less likely to go out and will (experience) increased social isolation, more depression and a lower quality of life,” Smayda said. “The idea that music may allow people to experience all that they used to is really exciting.”