Legendary rockers The Rolling Stones had the right idea all along, and there’s still good news for those of us not rocking out on stage somewhere. Research shows that playing an instrument could help keep your brain alert and give you faster reaction times as you get older.
The study, published in the journal Brain and Cognition, found that musicians have faster reaction times to sensory stimuli than people who didn’t play instruments. And, these findings could have a profound impact on symptoms of aging.
“The more we know about the impact of music on really basic sensory processes, the more we can apply musical training to individuals who might have slower reaction times,” said lead researcher Simon Landry. “As people get older, for example, we know their reaction times get slower. So if we know that playing a musical instrument increases reaction times, then maybe playing an instrument will be helpful for them.”
Participants in the study included 16 musicians and 19 non-musicians. They were seated in a quiet, well-lit room with one hand on a computer mouse and the index finger on a vibro tactile device, a small box that vibrated intermittently. They were told to click the mouse whether they heard a sound from the speakers or if the box vibrated, or when both events happened. Their reaction times were recorded.
“We found significantly faster reaction times with musicians for auditory, tactile and audio-tactile stimulations,” Landry writes in his study. “These results suggest for the first time that long-term musical training reduces simple non-musical auditory, tactile and multisensory reaction times.”
The musicians in the study, all recruited from Université de Montréal music faculty, had at least seven years of training and started playing their instruments between the ages of 3 and 10. Eight pianists, three violinists, two percussionists, one double bassist, one harpist and one viola player participated in the study. The non-musicians were undergraduates and half graduates at the school.
Landry believes further research would need to be done to uncover the full impact on aging people, but says that musical training could definitely have beneficial effects for the masses.
“If we can link playing music, or any form of multisensory training, for that matter, with preventing cognitive decline in elder musicians,” he says, “then it would provide good evidence for the helpfulness of such a training in a larger population.”
Landry adds that learning to play an instrument at any age provides cognitive brain boosts and a personal self fulfillment that cannot be measured.
“Playing an instrument will instill discipline, bring moments of focus, build new connections in the brain, and hopefully provide a bit of joy,” said Landry. “Even if it doesn’t end up increasing reaction times, those are all important benefits for a balanced lifestyle.”