Early piano-playing “improves brain”

Practicing the piano as a young child gives the human brain a musical capacity that is difficult to acquire later in life, Swedish scientists found in a study quoted in the media on Tuesday.

It is well-known that most of the world’s great pianists were already practicing their scales and arpeggios while still under 10 years old, and the study, published in the Nature Neuroscience journal, shows that this is no coincidence.

Childhood is the best time in life to boost the brain’s so-called white matter, according to the study, and boost the pyramidal tract, which is a major pathway of the central nervous system, transmitting signals between the brain and the pianist’s fingers.

The scientists, who investigated the brains of eight concert pianists in their thirties who started practicing as young children, found that the pyramidal tract is “more structured in pianists than in non-musicians”.

Fredrik Ullen, one of the scientists and himself a pianist, said he did not yet know how exactly the white brain matter development improves a concert performance.

“But it is likely that it gives pianists that extra boost to reach the absolute top level,” he said.

Ullen said similar brain mechanisms may help explain the performances of top dancers and athletes.