If you have to endure hours of squeaky tunes while your child practices their music, take heart. A new study has shown that even a little musical training in early childhood has a lasting, positive effect on how the brain processes sound.

Researchers from Northwestern University state that playing a musical instrument changes the anatomy and function of the brain. But they questioned whether these changes continue after the music training stops.

For the study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers tested 44 adults, some of whom had previously had musical training and others with no training at all.

The musical groups began their training at around age 9, a common age for schools to start teaching music. The researchers tested the participants' brains to see how they responded to fast-changing sounds.

Music to our ears

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The effects of playing a musical instrument as a child may endure into adulthood, with musically trained adults processing sound more quickly than non-trained ones.

The study reveals that as people age, they may experience changes in their brains that compromise hearing and that may impair a person's ability to interpret speech.

The researchers note that other studies have shown that these changes are not an inevitable effect of aging, as studies of musicians suggest that lifelong musical training may delay or offset such cognitive declines.

For the study, the participants listened to synthesized speech syllables while the researchers measured activity in the auditory brainstem.

The researchers discovered that, despite not having having played an instrument in nearly 40 years, the participants who completed 4-14 years of music training early in life had the fastest response to the speech sound (approximately a millisecond faster than those without music training).

And while a milliseconnd may not sound that impressive, its effects may be accumulative. Prof. Michael Kigard, who studies how the brain processes sound at the University of Texas at Dallas, and who was not involved in the study, explains:

"Being a millisecond faster may not seem like much, but the brain is very sensitive to timing and a millisecond compounded over millions of neurons can make a real difference in the lives of older adults,"

The Northwestern University team found that the more years study participants spent playing instruments as youths, the faster their brains responded to a speech sound.

Prof. Kraus says:

"The fact that musical training in childhood affected the timing of the response to speech in older adults in our study is especially telling because neural timing is the first to go in the aging adult."

The findings suggest that our early learning experiences may pay dividends in later years. Prof. Kraus adds:

"This study suggests the importance of music education for children today and for healthy aging decades from now."

Medical News Today reported that researchers from Scotland found that musicians' brains are sharper, as they can spot and correct mistakes more quickly.