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Musical training may boost reaction times, study suggests

Musicians react faster to sensory stimuli — specifically, sound and touch — than nonmusicians, a recent study of university students found.

After all the data was analyzed, researchers found “significantly faster reaction times with musicians for auditory, tactile and audio-tactile stimulations.”
REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Musicians react faster to sensory stimuli — specifically, sound and touch — than nonmusicians, according to a small but intriguing study published recently in the journal Brain and Cognition.

The Canadian researchers who conducted the study believe their finding may have implications for slowing down some of the effects of aging.

“If playing music for long periods of time increases reaction times by significant amounts (like in the study), then it’s possible a shorter period of musical training [later in life] could also have similar, but smaller, benefits,” stated Simon Landry, one of the study’s authors and a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical sciences at the University of Montreal, in an email exchange with MinnPost.

“The idea is that training the senses to work together will have benefits at the level of the brain, regardless of ‘tangible’ benefits,” he added.

Study details

For the study, Landry and his thesis adviser, auditory neuroscientist Francois Champoux, recruited 35 university students, aged 18 to 34 years. Sixteen of the students (10 women and six men) had started playing a musical instrument before the age of 10 and had received formal musical training for at least seven years.  The other 19 (15 women and four men) — the control group — were nonmusicians.

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Among the musicians, there were eight pianists, three violinists, two percussionists, one double bassist, one harpist and one viola player. All but one (a violinist) had also mastered one or more additional instruments.

During the experiment, the participants were seated comfortably in a quiet, well-lit room, with their right hand on a computer mouse and their left index finger on a vibro-tactile device, a small box that vibrated intermittently. They were told to left- click on the mouse immediately after they hear a sound (a rush of white noise) from two speakers in front of them, or after they sensed the box vibrating, or when both stimuli happened together. 

Each of the three “conditions” — audio, tactile and audio-tactile — was presented 180 times. There were also 36 “catch trials” in which no stimulus was presented to prevent the participants from anticipating a response. Throughout the experiment, the participants wore earplugs, and an ambient white noise from a noise generator played in the background. These measures helped ensure that no auditory clues could be heard from the vibro-tactile device.

Key findings

After all the data was analyzed, Landry and Champoux found “significantly faster reaction times with musicians for auditory, tactile and audio-tactile stimulations.”

Specifically, they found that it took the musicians, on average, about one-third less time to react to each of the three stimulations.

“These results suggest for the first time that long-term musical training reduces simple non-musical auditory, tactile and multisensory reaction times,” Landry and Champoux write in their paper.

Why would musical training shorten reaction times? 

“Playing music involves multiple senses,” explained Landry in an email. “For instance, with touch, musicians have to feel the (for example) string on their finger but they also need to accurately press on the string for the right sound to be produced. This long-term training of the sense in the context of producing exactly what is desired leads to a strengthening of sensory neural pathways. Additionally, using the senses in synchronicity for long periods of time (musicians practice for years) enhances how they work together. All this would lead to the faster multisensory reaction time (in the case of the study, audiotactile).”

Not the final word

The study has, like all studies, several important limitations. Most notably, it involved a small number of participants from a specific demographic group (young university students). The study’s findings may not translate, therefore, to larger, more diverse populations.

Also, the musicians in this study began their training quite early in life (before they were 10), and had been playing their instruments for at least seven years. It’s not at all clear that taking up musical training later in life would have the same effects.

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“Future studies will need to study this,” Landry acknowledged. “At the end of the day though, I don’t know if there are studies looking at the effects of learning to play an instrument in middle-age or older, but it 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. Even if it doesn’t end up increasing reaction times, those are all important benefits for a balanced lifestyle.”

FMI:  You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Brain and Cognition website, but the full study is behind a paywall.