A study by psychologists at the University of St Andrews has found that playing a musical instrument may help stall the decline in mental ability caused by age or illness.
The research, led by Dr Ines Jentzsch of the School of Psychology and Neuroscience and published in the journal Neuropsychologia, showed that musicians have sharper than average minds and can spot and fix mistakes more quickly than those without musical skills.
Dr Jentzsch’s study compared the cognitive ability of amateur musicians – who had had varying levels of instrumental practice – to that of non-musicians in carrying out simple mental tasks.
She found that the musicians were able to recognise and correct mistakes more quickly than the non-musicians, indicating that playing a musical instrument even at an amateur level improves the mind’s ability to catch errors. The musicians were also able to adjust their subsequent responses more effectively.
The work expanded on previous findings that had demonstrated a positive link between mental abilities and musical aptitude.
Dr Jentzsch said: “Our study shows that even moderate levels of musical activity can benefit brain functioning.
“Our findings could have important implications as the processes involved are amongst the first to be affected by ageing, as well as a number of mental illnesses such as 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.”
She continued: “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.
“Music plays an important role in virtually all societies. Nevertheless, in times of economic hardship, funds for music education are often amongst the first to be cut.
“We strongly encourage political decision makers to reconsider funding cuts for arts education and to increase public spending for music tuition.
“In addition, adults who have never played an instrument or felt too old to learn should be encouraged to take up music – it’s never too late.”