Drumroll, Please: How Band Camp Pays Off Later in Life

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If you gave up the clarinet in grade school, don’t worry. Those precious years of musical training still did your brain a favor.

Brains change with age, and these changes can sometimes interfere with our hearing, which in turn impacts how we respond to speech. But new research shows that being a musician — even by the loosest definition of the word — can curb cognitive declines. A new study from researchers at Northwestern University, published in the Journal of Neuroscience connected music lessons in childhood to the way the brain responded to speech later in life.

The researchers asked 44 adults between the ages of 55 to 76 about any musical instruments they played as children, and studied the electrical activity in their brains as they listened to the synthesized syllable, “da.” The scientists focused their attention on the auditory brain stem, the area that processes sensory and cognitive information. And they found that the longer a person played an instrument during childhood, the faster their brains were able to respond to sounds. This was true even though none of the participates had picked up an instrument in almost 40 years. Recognizing speech is a good indicator of cognitive ability, since picking out speech from background noise with relatively little effort is important for daily functioning.

The participants who had four to 14 years of musical training had a millisecond faster response compared to those who had no musical training. A millisecond may seem hardly notable, but the brain is so sensitive to timing, that the difference matters. This means older adults may have slower responses to sounds that change quickly, which means they can’t always understand what people are saying to them.

So even if you weren’t a musical prodigy, those hours spent practicing weren’t a total waste. “This study suggests the importance of music education for children today and for healthy aging decades from now. The fact that musical training in childhood affected the timing of the response to speech in older adults in our study is especially telling because neural timing is the first to go in the aging adult,” said the study’s lead author Nina Kraus in a statement.

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