A new study by researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland concludes that people who practice playing musical instruments have sharper brains because they pick up mistakes in their performance and fix them more quickly than other people.

Writing about their work in a recent issue of the journal Neuropsychologia, psychologist Doctor Ines Jentzsch and colleagues suggest playing music may help guard against mental decline, either through age or disease.

The findings reinforce previous research that links mental ability to playing music.

Dr. Jentzsch, who is a Reader in St. Andrews’ School of Psychology and Neuroscience and a keen pianist herself, says:

“Our study shows that even moderate levels of musical activity can benefit brain functioning.”

For their study, the researchers compared the mental performance of musicians versus non-musicians as they challenged them to complete simple conflict tasks.

There were 36 young adult participants in total, divided into four groups of 8 to 10, according to the number of accumulated hours of practicing a musical instrument over their lifetime (from “high,” over 5,000 hours, through “intermediate,” 2,000 to 5,000 hours and “low,” between 200 and 2,000 hours, to “no,” under 200 hours).

The researchers tested each participant’s mental ability in a single session that lasted about 2 hours. During the session, they measured the participant’s reaction times to the simple mental tasks and also took various physiological measurements.

The simple mental tasks included well-known conflict tests used by psychologists, such as the Stroop test.

In the Stroop test, participants are presented with names of colors depicted in colors that do not necessarily match. For instance, the word “blue” might be shown in the color red, and the word “green” shown in the color blue.

This sets up a conflict in the mind of the participant, who is asked to name the color of each word as it appears before them. The naming of the color is more prone to errors when it does not match the color in which it is presented.

In this study, the researchers were interested, among other things, in reaction times, accuracy and also the amount of post-error adjustment that went on.

Their results show that the amount of musical practice was positively linked to response speed – the more-practiced musicians responded faster than those with little or no musical training, with no loss in accuracy.

“This result suggests that higher levels of musical training might result in more efficient information processing in general […] and confirms earlier reports indicating a positive link between mental speed and musical ability,” write the authors.

However, what this study particularly highlights is that more hours of musical practice were also linked with “better engagement of cognitive control processes,” which came through in more efficient error and conflict detection, and reduced levels of post-error interference and post-conflict adjustments.

In other words, the more practice hours musicians had accumulated, the faster their reaction times in completing mental challenges, the better they were able to recognize and correct mistakes, and the less likely they were to go back and adjust their responses when they made mistakes.

This is perhaps not surprising, since practiced musicians learn to be aware of their performance but to not be overly affected by mistakes.

Dr. Jentzsch says their findings could be important because these mental processes are the first to be affected by aging and mental illnesses, like depression:

The research suggests that musical activity could be used as an effective intervention to slow, stop or even reverse age- or illness-related decline in mental functioning.”

Dr. Jentzsch implores policymakers looking for ways to save money in times of hardship to reconsider making cuts in funding for education and arts, and she even recommends increasing spending on music teaching, explaining that:

“Musical activity cannot only immensely enrich our lives, but the associated benefits for our physical and mental functioning could be even more far-reaching than proposed in our and previous research.”

She also urges adults who have never played a musical instrument and who say they are too old, to learn to pick one up and start practicing music, because “it’s never too late.”

Funds from the Wellcome Trust helped finance the study.

Earlier this year, a large-scale review of 400 research papers on the neurochemistry of music also found that playing and listening to music benefits both mental and physical health by improving the immune system and reducing stress.