An interesting paper published in the Psychological and Cognitive Sciences 3rd October 2020, by Zanto, Johnson, Ostrand and Gazzaley reviewed whether musical training would benefit non-musical tasks and whether the brain was able to transfer the benefit of musical training to other tasks.  

It is known that musical training can improve numerous cognitive functions associated with musical performance.  However, to review whether it benefited non-musical performance, non-musicians were randomised to receive eight weeks of either musical rhythm training or word search training.  Memory for faces was assessed pre and post-training while electroencephalography data were recorded to assess changes in brain activity.  

Results showed that only musical rhythm training improved face memory, which was associated with increased activity in the superior parietal region of the brain when encoding and maintaining faces.  Thus, it was concluded that musical rhythm training can improve face memory by facilitating how the brain encodes and maintains memories.  

Playing a musical instrument engages numerous cognitive abilities, including sensory perception, selective attention and short-term memory.  Mounting evidence indicates engaging these cognitive functions during musical training will improve performance of these same functions.  Yet it remains unclear the extent of these benefits may extend to non-musical tasks and what neural mechanisms may enable such transfer.  

These researchers conducted a preregistered randomised clinical trial where non-musicians underwent eight weeks of either digital musical rhythm training or word search as controls.  

Only musical rhythm training placed demands on short-term memory, as well as demands on visual perception and selective attention, which are known to facilitate short-term memory.  

As hypothesised, only the rhythm training group exhibited improved short-term memory on a face recognition task, thereby providing important evidence that musical rhythm training can benefit performance on a non-musical task. 

Analysis of electroencephalography data showed that neural activity associated with sensory processing and selective attention were unchanged by training.  Rather, rhythm training facilitated neural activity associated with short-term memory encoding, as indexed by an increased P3 of the event-related potential to face stimuli.  

Moreover, short-term memory maintenance was enhanced, as evidenced by increased two-class (face/scene) decoding accuracy.  

Activity from both the encoding and maintenance periods each highlighted the right superior parietal lobule as a source for training-related changes.  

Together, these results suggest musical rhythm training may improve memory for faces by facilitating activity within the superior parietal lobule to promote how memories are encoded and maintained, which can be used in a domain-general manner to enhance performance on a non-musical task.

In order to successfully produce music, multiple cognitive functions are needed and they must work together in concert.  

It is therefore not surprising that by engaging different cognitive functions during the musical performance, those same cognitive functions may become improved following musical training, which includes temporal attention, sensory processing and short-term memory.

Dr Paul Ettlinger

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