A study, recently published in the journal Brain and Cognition, finds that trained musicians have faster reaction times than their non-musical peers. For the first time, this effect is demonstrated in their responses to auditory and tactile cues.
Studies investigating how musical training affects the brain have grown in number over recent years.
Earlier work has shown anatomical and structural changes in visual, tactile, and auditory regions of the brain.
However, little research has been done beyond the realms of audio and visual information; how our sense of touch is involved has received much less attention.
The latest study in this field asks whether musicality might improve reaction times - not just in relation to sight and sound, but also using tactile stimuli.
As the authors explain, they wanted to find out "whether long-term musical training might also enhance other multisensory processes at a behavioral level."
The study was conducted at the Université de Montréal's (UdeM) School of Speech Language Pathology and Audiology, part of UdeM's medical faculty in Canada.
Led by Simon Landry, the research formed part of his doctoral thesis in biomedical science, and his area of specific interest is how sound and touch interact. Landry wants to understand "how playing a musical instrument affects the senses in a way that is not related to music."
Testing musicians' reactions
The study pitted 19 non-musicians against 16 musicians, recruited from UdeM's music faculty. The musicians each had a minimum of 7 years training and first started playing their instrument between the ages of 3-10.
Taking part were eight pianists, three violinists, two percussionists, a double bassist, a harpist, and a viola player. All but one of the musicians also played at least one other instrument.
The non-musicians were taken from the university's School of Speech Language Pathology. Both groups had a roughly even split between graduates and undergraduates.
In a well-lit and quiet room, each participant was tested alone. They placed one hand on a mouse and the other on a vibro-tactile device that vibrated at random intervals. Just in front of each participant was a speaker that emitted bursts of white noise at random points in time.
Participants were asked to click the mouse if they felt a vibration, heard a sound, or experienced both at once. All of the possibilities - audio, tactile, and audio-tactile - were presented 180 times to each person.
Once the data had been analyzed, the results were clear.
"We found significantly faster reaction times with musicians for auditory, tactile, and audio-tactile stimulations. These results suggest for the first time that long-term musical training reduces simple non-musical auditory, tactile, and multisensory reaction times."
According to the authors, when these results are taken together with previous findings, they infer that musicians are better than non-musicians at integrating inputs from different senses.
Reaction times and the aging population
Although the study might provide bragging rights for musicians, there is a more serious angle. Reaction times tend to slow during the process of aging. For certain individuals, this can be a significant problem. However, perhaps music tuition could prove useful for this subset of older adults.
As Landry says: "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."
This new information adds to the weight of recent findings regarding the health benefits of music and musical training. As the studies roll in, music could well become a common form of adjunctive therapy for a range of conditions.