Healthy Keys: Playing the piano improves the brain’s processing of audiovisual information and can relieve depression, stress, and anxiety. It is interesting that this effect already occurs in piano beginners who take one hour of lessons per week for eleven weeks, as researchers have now discovered.

We humans are connected to music in a special way. The sense of rhythm is literally in our genes and there is even a singing center in our brain. Music can also have a positive effect on our physical and mental health. So-called music therapy has been used for a long time, especially in the case of mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders. A certain piano sonata by Mozart can also counteract epileptic seizures.

Not only listening to music, but also playing a musical instrument can have positive effects on health and the brain. For example, musicians process audiovisual information better than non-musicians and are also able to recognize emotions in other people more easily. So far, however, it was unclear whether musicians only acquire these skills through their musical training or whether they are “already born” and only use them for music.

To solve this chicken-and-egg problem, researchers led by Yuqing Che from the University of Bath in England divided 31 adult non-musicians into three groups. All three performed a specific activity for one hour a week for 11 weeks. The first group completed 20 minutes of finger practice on the piano and then learned to play simple pieces for 40 minutes, including “La donna é mobile” or “When the saints go marching in”.

The second group only listened to the pieces that the first group was learning, and the third group was given music-independent reading assignments. Che and her colleagues conducted various tests every two weeks. For example, the subjects had to classify different emotions and answer questions about their mental state. In a further test, the participants were confronted with two different stimuli – a hearing and a visual stimulus – and had to assess whether both occurred at the same time or at different times.

The result: just eleven weeks of piano training were enough for the piano beginners to improve significantly in the stimulus synchronicity test. Unlike the other two groups, they were better able to recognize at the end of the period whether the visual and auditory stimuli arrived at the same time or with a time lag, as Che and her colleagues report.

According to the researchers, this “multisensory processing” has advantages for almost all everyday activities and is useful, for example, when driving a car, crossing a street or trying to find people in a crowd. “This study provides the first evidence for a causal effect of music training on improving audiovisual perception that goes beyond the realm of music,” the researchers write.

This suggests that musicians do not initially have better audiovisual skills, but only acquire them through playing music. Che’s colleague Karin Petrini explains how piano lessons can improve cognitive abilities: “Learning an instrument like the piano is a complex task. In scientific terms, this process combines visual and auditory information, resulting in multi-sensory training for the individual.”

The piano exercises also had a positive effect on the mood of the test subjects: the piano beginners stated that their depression, anxiety and stress had reduced over the course of the experiment. However, this effect was not quite as pronounced in relation to the other two groups as in the case of audiovisual processing.

Nevertheless, the researchers suspect that learning to play a musical instrument could be beneficial for people with mental health problems. This is currently being checked in further research. However, there was no improvement in the recognition of emotions. The researchers were not able to identify a decisive change in any of the three groups. (Scientific Reports, 2022; doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-23340-4)

Quelle: University of Bath

This article was written by Anna Manz

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The original of this article “One instrument works better than many medicines” comes from scinexx.