Many people listen to music while they’re carrying out a task, whether they’re studying for an exam, driving a vehicle or even reading a book. Typically, many of these people also argue that background music would help them focus, and only recently have these claims been inspected more closely. Some studies have now also recently suggested that musical training improves blood flow in brain areas that are involved in language processing. Furthermore, recent research has also shown that listening to music may even “motivate” the brain to learn by stimulating neural networks associated with reward processing. It’s safe to say that the assumption that listening to music when working is beneficial is a fairly “oblivious” one, but oddly enough, the first taste of any scientific evidence that this could be confirmed came to light when a recent study traced its roots back to the so-called “Mozart effect”, which gained worldwide media attention. Put simply, this is the finding that spatial rotation performance (mentally rotating a 3D dimensional shape to determine whether it matches another or not) is increased immediately after listening to the music of Mozart, compared to relaxation instructions or no sound at all. In fact, the finding gathered so much attention that the then US governor of Georgia, Zell Miller, proposed giving free cassettes or CDs of Mozart’s music to prospective parents.
Now, a new study that was newly published in the Journal Heliyon suggests that musical training may also have an effect on attentional control. Researchers led by Paulo Barraza, Ph.D. — from the Centre for Advanced Research in Education at the University of Chile in Santiago — examined the link between musical training and attention.
In their paper written on the topic, Barraza and their colleagues explain that the brain’s attentional system consists of three subsystems, each with their own “anatomically distinct neural network.” These three subsystems correspond to the “alerting, orienting, and executive control networks.” To put it simply, the alerting brain network keeps us ready for action, the orienting network helps us distinguish between relevant and irrelevant sensory information and helps us switch focus, and the executive control network helps us block out distracting information and is also involved in “top-down attentional control.”
During their study, the researchers asked 18 professional musicians and 18 non-musical participants to take a standard attentional network test. The musicians were trained pianists who had been practicing music for 12 years. As part of the test, the participants had to look at various images that quickly flashed before their own eyes. The team measured the participants’ reactive behaviour by measuring how long it took for them to respond to the image changes. A longer reaction time essentially indicated less efficient attentional control in participants.
On average, the trained musicians scored 43.84 milliseconds (ms) for the alerting subsystem, 43.70 ms for the orienting one, and 53.83 for the executive network. By comparison, non-musicians scored 41.98 ms, 51.56 ms, and 87.19 ms, respectively. Importantly, attentional control improved proportionally with the number of years in musical training the participants had.
“Our findings,” Barraza points out, “demonstrate greater inhibitory attentional control abilities in musicians than non-musicians.” He goes on, “Professional musicians are able to more quickly and accurately respond to and focus on what is important to perform a task, and more effectively filter out incongruent and irrelevant stimuli than non-musicians. In addition, the advantages are enhanced with increased years of training.”
The scientists also went on to explain that their findings added to the ongoing evidence that musical training does in fact boost “extra-musical” cognitive skills. The study’s co-author David Medina, from the Department of Music at the Metropolitan University of Educational Sciences in Santiago, Chile, also commented on the results, saying “Our findings of the relationship between musical training and improvement of attentional skills could be useful in clinical or educational fields.”
“For instance,” he added, “in strengthening the ability of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to manage distractions or the development of school programs encouraging the development of cognitive abilities through the deliberate practice of music.” He then continued, “Future longitudinal research should directly address these interpretations.”