New links found between musical training and cognitive ability

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Summary: Musical training influences visual working memory, researchers have found. The study found that certain brain regions may share a common component that influences both visual and musical working memory.

Source: Max Planck Institute

“Will my child be a better student if he learns to play an instrument? is a question that many parents have asked themselves. But it’s not just parents who wonder if musical training can improve other cognitive abilities or school performance.

Today, scientists from the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien in Hannover, Germany; Goldsmiths University of London, UK; Macquarie University of Sydney, Australia; the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics (MPIEA) in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and the University of Cambridge, UK, have tackled this question using a new scientific method.

The results of their study have just been published in the journal Musical perception.

A crucial element of all cognitive faculties is working memory, which is the ability to hold information in memory and use it without outside help, such as pen and paper.

However, it is still unclear whether working memory has the same function for all brain regions or whether it differs from region to region, i.e. whether the regions and abilities that the brain uses for music, pictures, language and math are the same or different.

In their study, the scientists examined a total of 148 people. Using six different tests, they compared the musical and visual working memories of the research subjects with their level of musical training.

“Previous studies on the relationship between musical training and general cognitive abilities have tended to ignore musical memory. What we’ve done is study these three factors using the ‘causal modeling’ approach, a relatively new scientific method for determining causal relationships under specific conditions,” says lead author Peter Harrison of the MPIEA.

The results show that if musical training influences visual working memory, it is through the “detour” of musical working memory. In other words, because of its main benefits for musical working memory, musical training could also have a positive effect on visual working memory.

The results show that if musical training influences visual working memory, it is through the “detour” of musical working memory. Image is in public domain

The study further showed that conversely, a generally strong working memory can facilitate musical learning.

The research team’s findings suggest that brain regions share a common component that influences both visual and musical working memory. A direct causal link between musical training and general cognitive faculties, however, seems unlikely.

Additional long-term studies, in which individuals with and without musical training are compared in terms of the development of their musical and cognitive abilities, could further support these findings.

About this music and cognition research news

Author: Klaus Frieler
Source: Max Planck Institute
Contact: Klaus Frieler – Max Planck Institute
Image: Image is in public domain

Original research: Access closed.
“Associations between musical training, musical working memory and visuospatial working memory: an opportunity for causal modeling” by Silas, S., Müllensiefen, D., Gelding, R., Frieler, K. & Harrison, PMC Musical perception


Summary

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Associations between musical training, musical working memory and visuospatial working memory: an opportunity for causal modeling

Previous research investigating the relationship between musical training (MT) and more general cognitive abilities, such as visuospatial working memory (VSWM), often fails to include tests of musical memory.

This may result in misrepresentation of causal pathways between TM and other such variables, potentially explaining some ambiguous findings in the literature regarding the relationship between TM and executive functions.

Here, we address this problem by using latent variable modeling and causal modeling to investigate a triplet of working memory-related variables: MT, music working memory (MWM), and VSWM.

Triplet framing allows for the potential application of D-splitting (similar to mediation analysis) and V-pattern finding, which is particularly useful because, in the absence of expensive randomized controlled trials, it can test causal hypotheses using cross-sectional data. We collected data from 148 participants using a battery of MWM and VSWM tasks as well as an MT questionnaire.

Our results suggest: 1) VSWM and MT are unrelated, conditional on MWM; and 2) by implication, there is no far transfer between MT and VSWM without near transfer. However, the data do not allow an unambiguous causal structure to be distinguished.

We conclude by discussing the possibility of extending these models to incorporate more complex or cyclical effects.


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