This article is from American Scientist:
Musicians dedicate their lives to focused, disciplined, and repeated practice. Moreover, playing music offers an unlimited capacity for improvement: Musicians constantly strive for nuance, defter technique, and better synchrony with their ensembles. Articles implying a link between musicianship and brain plasticity started to appear: Violinists had enlarged motor brain areas dedicated to the hand; expert musicians made finer judgments about sounds that differed subtly in timing or pitch.
We suspected something more might be going on with music. Playing music could affect more than our ability to process melodies and rhythms; it might trigger much broader cognitive and sensory changes. With our colleagues Gabriella Musacchia, Erika Skoe, Patrick Wong, and Mikko Sams, our lab decided to investigate. We recruited a cohort of college students, half of whom had been avid musicians for several years and the other half were musically naive. We then measured electrophysiological responses to speech and music—brain waves that tell us the integrity of sound processing in the brain.
In a pair of papers published in 2007, we reported that the musicians had heightened responses to the subtle acoustic details of speech, suggesting that music training generalizes to language. Indeed, the musicians’ brains could encode acoustic details of Mandarin speech too subtle for most English speakers to detect, suggesting that music training might enable a listener to be a more precocious language learner.
There is a lot more there, so read the whole thing.
We quickly discovered that music training forges a remarkably similar brain signature across all ages. Musicians’ brains more quickly and accurately encode certain ingredients of speech sounds than do those of nonmusicians. Music training improves the brain’s ability to process speech sounds against a noisy background, such as the din of a busy restaurant. This neural resilience made sense, because musicians also had a superior ability to understand speech in a noisy environment. Moreover, they had stronger memory and attentional skills than did nonmusicians. Although there were developmental variations, with certain aspects of brain function being fine-tuned later in life than others, music training seemed to have a strikingly consistent effect across the lifespan.
Some of the most surprising results came from musicians in their sixties and seventies, who showed stronger memory, attention, and hearing abilities than did contemporaries who had never participated in music training. We also found direct evidence for differences in brain function between older musicians and nonmusicians. Neural responses to speech generally slow as we age. Not so in lifelong musicians: A 65-year-old musician’s neural responses are indistinguishable from those of a 25-year-old nonmusician. The responses of a 65-year-old who played music as a child but hadn’t touched an instrument in decades fell in the middle: faster than those of a peer who had never played music but slower than those of a lifelong musician. Musical experience early in life imparts lifelong neuroplasticity.
And I suspect that there are lot of other, not easily measurable, benefits. Take for example, the learning of the disciplines of practice, of delayed gratification through slow practice, of developing the skills to communicate mood and atmosphere to listeners and a whole bunch of other things that are hard to find words for.