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Among musicians who learned to play an instrument before the age of seven, earlier training was linked to more connections in the area of the brain that co-ordinates both hands. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Starting piano or violin lessons before the age of seven appears to cause permanent changes to the brain that are linked to better motor skills. Those changes in brain development don't occur in people who learn to play an instrument when they are older, a new study has found.

"What we think is that it doesn't mean you can't be an amazing musician if you start later — just that if you start earlier it may give you some of these specific abilities that are helpful," said Virginia Penhune, a Concordia University psychologist who co-authored the research with two of her doctoral students and McGill University neuropsychologist Robert Zatorre.

The Montreal researchers gave a test of motor skills to and scanned the brains of 36 musicians who were either enrolled in a university music program or performed professionally, and who had an average of 16 years experience playing musical instruments.

COMING UP

Virginia Penhune talks to Quirks & Quarks Feb. 16 at noon on CBC Radio One

Half of them began their musical training between age three and seven, while the other half started between the ages of eight and 18, but both groups had a comparable level of experience. The study also tested 17 non-musicians.

Those who started their musical training at a younger age performed better than those who started their musical training later, who in turn performed better than the non-musicians on a test that involved clicking a mouse in response to a series of dashes on a screen that look similar to Morse code.

"It's really looking at your ability to put together visual and motor response and to be really accurate in terms of your timing," Penhune said, noting that some of those skills are used in music, but the task itself is not musical.

"These people didn't spend their lives practising this task …. We're not just showing that they're better at something they did all the time."

Co-ordinating 2 hands

When the volunteers' brains were scanned using a technique called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers found that non-musicians with more connections between the left and right motor regions of the brain tended to perform better on the test.

The connections show up on the scan as extra tissue called white matter in a bundle of nerve fibres called the corpus callosum, which plays a big role in co-ordinating a person's two hands — an important component of playing a musical instrument. 

'I don't think it means that necessarily the early-trained musicians are better musicians.'—Virginia Penhune, psychologist

Among the musicians who started training before the age of seven, the earlier their musical training began, the more white matter they had in their corpus callosum, suggesting that their early training boosted their brain development in that area.

Musicians who started training after the age of seven had the same amount of white matter in their corpus callosum as the non-musicians, suggesting that the changes to brain development can only happen at an early age.

The results were published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Penhune noted that the brain changes observed in the study are correlated with a very specific ability.

"I don't think it means that necessarily the early-trained musicians are better musicians. There are a whole lot of things that you need to be a musician. You need to be expressive, you need to enjoy performing, you need to be willing to live the life that a musician lives," she said.

"On the other hand, if you talk to people who are music teachers, they will tell you that kids who start early have a smoothness of movement, an accuracy of movement that's harder for kids who start later — or especially adults — to learn."

Early musical training has also been linked to certain other skills in which the corpus callosum plays a role, Penhune said, such as being able to imitate the movements of others.

Anecdotally, people also seem to learn sport and language skills better at a young age, and that is also thought to be linked to brain changes. But the researchers chose to look at learning a musical instrument because people tend to have better knowledge of when they started their training and how much training they had — information that is useful for a study like this.

Penhune said prior to her study, people had already known that people who start playing an instrument at a young age do better on some kinds of musical rhythm tasks. She and her colleagues wanted to see if that was linked to visible brain differences, as had been seen in similar animal studies.