The Effects of Learning to Play the Piano on the Brain

By D. Laverne O'Neal ; Updated September 15, 2017
Research shows that piano lessons significantly impact the brain.

"[I]nterest in music and the mind dates at least as far back as Plato," according to the Neurosciences Institute. Much is made of the effect of music on the spirit and the emotions. But science supports that learning to play an instrument, such as the piano, affects and even makes changes to the brain. Even if you study early on and then stop, you benefit.

Auditory Cortex

Several research studies show that music has an effect on the auditory cortex of the brain. A July 2010 Live Science article states, “…pianists show more brain activity in their auditory cortex—the part of the brain responsible for processing sounds—than non-musicians in response to hearing piano notes.” A study at the Institute for Music and the Mind at McMaster University in Ontario showed "larger brain responses on a number of sound recognition tests” among preschoolers with musical training, according to a Live Science article published in November 2009. They also reported a Harvard University study that “found a correlation between early-childhood training in music and enhanced motor and auditory skills as well as improvements in verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning”; another study indicated that “musical training gives an individual the acoustic responsiveness of a child some 2 - 3 years older.”

Memory

Studies also show that learning to play the piano or another instrument can have an impact on memory. A study by Agnes Chan of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, published in Nature, found that "...adults who received music training before the age of 12 have a better memory for spoken words than those who did not. Music training in childhood may therefore have long-term positive effects on verbal memory." In the above-cited Institute for Music and the Mind study at McMaster University, the primary researcher stated, "We…hypothesize that musical training … affects attention and memory, [so that] musical training might lead to better learning….”

Neural Pathways and Neuroplasticity

A review of research conducted by Nina Kraus of Northwestern University found “the effects of musical training on the nervous system can build meaningful patterns important to all types of learning,” according to UPI. The study reviewed research results from all over the world to conclude that “[a]n active engagement with musical sounds not only enhances neuroplasticity, but also creates permanent patterns important to all learning.” Neuroplasticity is defined by Northwestern researchers as “the brain's ability to adapt and change as a result of training and experience." In addition, Forbes reported University of Wisconsin researcher Frances Rauscher's speculation that "understanding music, particularly learning to translate musical symbols into sound, might be transferring to other abilities, because they are sharing similar neuro pathways."

Spatial-Temporal Function

According to a Washington University website article, one study in which children were given eight months worth of piano lessons showed a correlation between musical study and spatial-temporal reasoning improvement. In the study, the control groups were given singing lessons, computer lessons, or no lessons. The findings were "...that only those children who received the keyboard lessons had improvement in the spatial-temporal test," which involved putting together puzzles. A University of California, Irvine study cited on PubMed.gov showed similar results, finding that "preschool children given six months of piano keyboard lessons improved dramatically on spatial-temporal reasoning while children in appropriate control groups did not improve."

About the Author

D. Laverne O'Neal, an Ivy League graduate, published her first article in 1997. A former theater, dance and music critic for such publications as the "Oakland Tribune" and Gannett Newspapers, she started her Web-writing career during the dot-com heyday. O'Neal also translates and edits French and Spanish. Her strongest interests are the performing arts, design, food, health, personal finance and personal growth.