Playing a musical instrument requires a battery of unique skills, including being able to quickly and accurately assess incoming sounds, fine motor skills, and the coordination of behavior and feedback from one’s errors and mistakes. Receiving musical education at a young age has been shown to increase spatial-temporal skills. Musicians must often inhibit attention from one hand to focus on the movement of the other; this is called inhibitory control.
Inhibitory control is not a new idea; in fact, this concept is taught in most Psychology 101 lectures, using an example called the marshmallow test. In this famous experiment, an experimenter would place a marshmallow in front of a child and tell her to wait 15 minutes during the experimenter’s absence. The child was promised a second marshmallow if she had the willpower to wait. Those who waited and chose the delayed gratification tended to have better academic performance as adolescents.
A recent longitudinal study brings new light to this old topic. The results revealed children in their third year of musical training chose delayed gratification significantly more often than children in sports programs or those not participating in extracurricular activities. A previous study from the same research group showed that music students also had differences in brain activation (measured with fMRI) compared to students who were not involved in music or sports. During tasks that required cognitive control, the music students had increased activation of the inferior frontal gyrus (attentional demand and inhibition), anterior cingulate cortex (emotional control), and insula (self-awareness).