A Downside to Musical Training

...as musicians have greater skills in analyzing musical signals, they also automatically engage these skills more, which in turn depletes cognitive capacity towards other tasks when music is playing.

With all the reports on how musical training augments the brain and supports different cognitive functions, people sometimes ask, what’s the downside? Can learning to play a musical instrument and all the associated neuroplastic effects somehow be harmful?

Little research has been conducted on the possible problems stemming from music training. One known and grave example is focal dystonia, where areas of the somatosensory cortex (the area of the brain responsible for processing sensation and controlling movement) that are representative of individual fingers, start to expand and overlap. The cause is believed to be excessive practice and the end result is devastating for a musician - the inability to move the fingers independently. Luckily, this kind of disorder is rare among musicians. Are there any examples of more typical and less dire downsides of music training?

Recently, a pilot study was published that reported a very common problem that musicians encounter - getting distracted by attention-grabbing music in the background. In the study, the problem-solving abilities of 20 guitarists, 20 pianists, and 20 non-musicians were investigated while playing either piano, guitar or saxophone music in the background. The pieces that were played were a guitar solo “Autumn in New York” performed by Peter Bernstein, a piano solo “The Rainbow” played by Ketil Bjørnstad, and a saxophone solo “Finesse” performed by John Klemmer.

Researchers discovered that musicians were distracted most by music that was played with the instrument they had been trained on. In other words, guitar players were most distracted by the guitar solo and pianists by the piano solo. This distraction was seen as poorer performance on the cognitive tasks than either non-musicians or the participants trained on the other instruments.  Scientists speculate that as musicians have greater skills in analyzing musical signals, they also automatically engage these skills more, which in turn depletes cognitive capacity towards other tasks when music is playing. In short, the musicians can’t help but listen to the music.

The researchers called their study a pilot, as more research is needed to clarify the phenomenon. Open questions include whether the effect is seen with other instrument types and music styles. An interesting question to explore is how does this depletion of cognitive performance vary with the complexity of the music? The researchers also look forward to replicating the study with more participants, so that comparisons can be made between all the participant groups in all test conditions.

Overall, these findings relate to the discussion of individual differences in the effects of background music on cognitive processing. If experience in music training alters how music may tax cognition, perhaps even music preference or an extensive listening history, may alter the effects of background music on an individual.

Written by Ketki Karanam