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Here’s What Playing an Instrument Can Do for Your Brain

Great news for all you musicians out there: Playing an instrument may boost reaction time, according to a new study. The added perk is something people of all ages can likely benefit from, say the study authors, but it may be especially important for older adults whose reaction times get slower with age.

The new research, from the University of Montreal’s School of Speech Language Pathology and Audiology, tested the reaction skills of 16 musicians and 19 non-musicians, all of whom were college or graduate students. The musicians all had at least seven years of training, and their specialties included violin, piano, harp, percussion, and other instruments.

The participants sat in a quiet room and were asked to click a computer mouse when they heard sounds coming from a speaker, or felt vibrations coming from a small box. And overall, those who played instruments had faster reaction times—for both auditory and tactile (vibrating) stimulations—than those who didn’t.

Lead author Simon Landry, a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical science, says that playing an instrument requires the use of multiple senses, and that practicing regularly can fine-tune those senses over time.

“Musicians have to feel the (for example) string on their finger, but they also need to accurately press on the strong for the right sound to be produced,” he told RealSimple.com in an email. This long-term training “leads to a strengthening of sensory neural pathways,” he added, especially when skills are built up over many years.

Landry also notes that, because reaction times naturally decline with age, playing an instrument might help fight some cognitive signs of aging and help older adults stay alert.

It’s too early to assume broader brain benefits beyond what the study showed, he says—although previous research has suggested a link between reaction time and cognitive function. A 2015 study also found that musical therapy (in that case, singing) boosted memory in people with dementia.

Landry’s results, published in the journal Brain and Cognition, provide good context for further research, he says.

“If we can link playing music, or any form of multisensory training, for that matter, with preventing cognitive decline in elder musicians,” he says, “then it would provide good evidence for the helpfulness of such a training in a larger population.”

So what if you haven’t picked up an instrument since middle school: Is it too late to start? Landry says it’s unclear whether there are cognitive benefits to learning to play music as an adult, but it probably can’t hurt.

“Playing an instrument will instill discipline, bring moments of focus, build new connections in the brain, and hopefully provide a bit of joy,” he says. “Even if it doesn’t end up increasing reaction times, those are all important benefits for a balanced lifestyle.”