Playing the cello does more than boost your teen's odds of getting into Harvard. It also means he should improve his memory – and even hear better in old age. Really.
Older adults who play instruments throughout their lives are better at distinguishing a friend's voice in a noisy place, such as a bustling restaurant, since musical training helps with linguistic pitch, says neuroscientist Nina Kraus, co-author of the study "Musical experience offsets age-related delays in neural timing" in the most recent issue of the journal Neurobiology of Aging and principal investigator at the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University. "Actively engaging in playing an instrument seems to be associated with maintaining fast and precise neural timing."
To get this benefit, you and your kids need to play music, not just passively listen to it. "You do not get physically fit by watching spectator sports," says Kraus. "You've got to work at it." And the more you practice, the better off you are. "The effect of musical experience is greater the more you play," says Kraus.
Kraus and her team compared non-musicians to musicians who started musical training by the age of 9, but she suspects that anyone at any age could pick up an instrument and reap some benefits. "The nervous system has the capacity to learn and change throughout our lives, based on our experience," she says. "There is good reason to expect that musical experience can help at any time."
Any instrument seems to do the trick, but Kraus and her team are investigating singing and playing the drums.
A caveat: Keep the volume moderate. Kraus and her team looked at musicians with normal hearing, not at rock stars, such as Pete Townshend, who hurt their eardrums. "Listening to loud music and gunshots and very loud sounds is known to damage people's hearing," says Kraus.
Calling Ponce de Leon: Could the fountain of auditory youth lie in musical instruments? It can't hurt to give the violin or the cello a try – at any age. You may hear better later – and you'll get pleasure from your newfound ability to play your own songs now. (Give iTunes a rest and learn to play "Love the Way You Lie" and "Firework" yourself!)
To sign up for lessons, check local music stores. Even Best Buy offers instruction. Several websites such as onlinepianist.com also offer tutorials. And when you're not practicing, encourage local school officials not to cut musical programs.
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