Playing the recorder in kindergarten, piano lessons in first grade, clapping to the rhythm throughout elementary school music class, all of these can contribute to developing the brain.

The new findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, reveal that musical training earlier than the age of seven has a significant impact on the development of the brain. Those who began musical training early had more powerful connections between motor regions – the parts of the brain that aid in planning and executing movements.

The study was conducted in a laboratory at Concordia University and led by professor Virginia Penhune.

The findings reveal significant evidence that the years between ages six and eight are an extra sensitive time when musical training combines with normal brain development to create deep-rooted changes in motor abilities and brain structure.

Penhune commented:

“Learning to play an instrument requires coordination between hands and with visual or auditory stimuli. Practicing an instrument before age seven likely boosts the normal maturation of connections between motor and sensory regions of the brain, creating a framework upon which ongoing training can build.”

The researchers tested 36 adult musicians on a movement task and then scanned their brains.

Half of the participants started their musical education prior to age seven, while the other half started at a later age. Both groups had identical numbers of years of musical training and experience.

Both groups were also compared to people with little or no official musical training.

When analyzing motor skills of the two groups, musicians who started before the age of seven showed more accurate timing, even following two days of practice.

In the area of brain structure, musicians who were musically educated early showed heightened white matter in the corpus callosum – a bundle of nerve fibers that links the left and right motor areas of the brain.

Most notably, the authors found that the younger a musician began their training, the greater the connectivity. However, the brain scans showed no significant difference between the non-musicians and the musicians who started their training later in life. This finding reveals that the brain developments involved occur early or not at all.

The findings also suggest that the advantages of early musical training reach beyond the ability to play an instrument, because the test given to the participants was a non-musical motor skill task.

Penhune concluded:

“It’s important to remember that what we are showing is that early starters have some specific skills and differences in the brain that go along with that. But, these things don’t necessarily make them better musicians. Musical performance is about skill, but it is also about communication, enthusiasm, style, and many other things that we don’t measure. So, while starting early may help you express your genius, it probably won’t make you a genius.”

A study done last year by University Hospital San Raffaele (Milan, Italy), revealed that musical training increases skills and development of the brain. The musical stimuli caused a reconstruction of gray matter in those brain regions that are involved in coordinated movement. Findings showed the more complex the task was, the better.

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald