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Music as we age - a look at how learning the art form changes our brain

Venice Boardwalk musician Nathan Pino at his piano.
Venice Boardwalk musician Nathan Pino at his piano.
Rebecca Hill/KPCC

Learning music in early childhood may not make kids smarter - but it could help our aging brains, according to a recent article in National Geographic.

The piece examines research from a December 2013 study of preschoolers that found music instruction did not produce cognitive benefits for the young students used in the trials. The study was published in PLUS ONE, a peer-reviewed online journal. 

The National Geographic story, written by Diane Cole, goes on to detail other studies that find learning music can have a "lasting impact on the brain."

A growing number of studies show that music lessons in childhood can do something perhaps more valuable for the brain than childhood gains: provide benefits for the long run, as we age, in the form of an added defense against memory loss, cognitive decline, and diminished ability to distinguish consonants and spoken words.

There's no age-limit for getting the benefits. Music education professor Jennifer Bugos studied the impact of piano lessons on adults between 60 and 85 years old, according to the article. Bugos found that after six months, those in the study showed marked improvements in areas like memory, verbal fluency and planning ability.

The hours spent practicing and learning the motor control techniques required to play an instrument, as well as music reading and listening skills, writes Cole, all contribute "to a brain boost that shows up late in life."