A new study published by researchers at the University of Bath in England demonstrates the positive impact that playing the piano has on the brain’s ability to process images and sounds, and shows how it can also help improve mood.

Publishing his findings in Scientific Reportsthe team behind the study shows how beginners who took piano lessons for just one hour a week for 11 weeks reported significant improvements in recognizing audio-visual changes in their environment and reported lower levels of depression, stress and anxiety.

In the randomized control trial, 31 adults were assigned to either a piano learning group, a music listening group, or a control group.

Individuals with no previous musical experience or training were instructed to participate in weekly one-hour sessions. While the intervention groups sang, the control groups either listened to music or used the time to do homework.

Playing the piano improved multisensory processing

The researchers found that within just a few weeks of starting the lessons, people’s ability to process multisensory information (i.e. sight and sound) was improved. Enhanced “multisensory processing” has benefits for almost every activity we engage in, from driving a car and crossing a road to finding a person in a crowd or watching TV, he writes Medical Xpress.

These multisensory enhancements extended beyond musical abilities. Along with musical training, people’s audiovisual processing has become more accurate in other tasks. Those who received piano lessons showed greater accuracy in tests where participants were asked to determine whether sound and sight “events” occurred at the same time.

This was true for both simple displays showing flashes and beeps and more complex displays showing a person speaking. Such fine-tuning of individuals’ cognitive abilities was not present for the music-listening group (in which participants listened to the same music performed by the piano-learning group) or the no-music group (in which members they studied or read).

Lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress

In addition, the results went beyond improvements in cognitive skills, showing that participants also had reduced depression, anxiety and stress scores after the lessons. The authors suggest that playing the piano could be beneficial for people with mental health difficulties, and further research is underway to test this.

“We know that playing and listening to music often brings joy to our lives, but with this study we were interested in learning more about the direct effects that a short period of learning music can have on our cognitive abilities.” explained cognitive psychologist and music specialist Dr Karin Petrini, from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology.

Playing an instrument is a complex task

“Learning to play an instrument like the piano is a complex task: it requires a musician to read a score, generate movements, and monitor auditory and tactile feedback to adjust their subsequent actions. In scientific terms, the process couples visual and auditory cues and results in multisensory training,” continued Petrini.

“The findings of our study suggest that this has a significant and positive impact on the way the brain processes audio-visual information even in adulthood, when brain plasticity is reduced,” concluded Petrini.

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