Category Archives: Musical Expertise

Are musicians better at multitasking?

Hello Dear Reader,

coldIt got chilly all of a sudden. We were enjoying a mild late summer in the UK until this week. Now people have broken into their supplies of heavy winter scarves and gloves.

I have had the pleasure of bringing out my Grandmother’s legacy of winter hats. Today I am debuting her white 1920s bonnet.

My Grandma’s hats remind me of her, a lovely feeling.  They also fit my head, which is a miracle. My head measures 60cm circumference. Why not measure your head Dear Reader? You will likely find yours is a neat and well-shaped cranium, not like the bulging mass that sits atop my neck. Large heads run in my family; my brother, sister, my father, and my grandma. Wearing her hat reminds me I am her granddaughter – big head and all.

musicianThe idea of transfer from one to another leads me into my reading for this week. Not genetics per se, but rather the transfer that may occur when people train as musicians. Do musicians gain skills/ abilities that become generalized beyond musical ability? This long-standing debate in the literature regarding so-called ‘far transfer effects’ is one I covered in my book (You Are The Music) and in my blog (musicians and their wider skills).

Under the theory that “there is no smoke without fire” it seems likely that musical skills result in some kind of transfer to other domains. But where and, more importantly, how might this occur?

A new paper by Linda Moradzadeh and colleagues (York University, Canada) has looked at task switching and dual-task performance in musicians.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATheir background comes from research into bilingualism. Learning more than one language is associated with general advantages to linguistic processing and task switching skills.

Musical training by contrast is frequently associated with verbal advantages (in memory, verbal IQ, linguistic processing).

Few studies have put these two strands of evidence together to ask the question, is musical training associated with task switching abilities in normal adults, as it is in bilinguals? Furthermore, can you double up – do bilingual musicians have the biggest advantage in task switching?

Task switching and dual task performance

Task switching is the ability to swap operations between two different mental challenges. It is a skill that is thought to reflect our cognitive flexibility. There are two types of cost associated with task switching:

1) Local cost occurs when we temporarily slow down following a switch;

2) Global cost occurs when we slow down in general because we know that we might need to switch soon.

Local cost reflects the cognitive effort needed to switch our mindset at any one moment and Global cost is associated with the overall demand of keeping two tasks in mind.

Bilinguals often need to switch between their languages, resulting in switch costs. Studies have demonstrated that bilinguals perform better on general task switching tasks as early as preschool age.  However, many of these studies lack control over confounds such as socio-economic status (SES) and IQ.

multitaskingAnother skill in bilinguals is dealing with dual task demands. Dual task performance, doing two things at once (multitasking), relies on executive function skills. These overlap with those skills used in task switching (working memory) but they are unique in one important way – dual tasks require the simultaneous processing of two things.

In comes our new paper. Moradzadeh et al. (2014) predicted that musicians would outperform non-musicians on task switching (lower local and global costs) and dual task performance (more accurate under high demands). They made the same predictions for bilinguals vs. monolinguals. Finally, they looked at the possibility of an additive effect of musical training and bilingualism on task switching and dual task ability.

The new experiment

153 participants (age 18 – 31) were divided into four groups: 1) monolingual musicians, 2) bilingual musicians, 3) monolingual non-musicians, and 4) bilingual non-musicians. All the musicians had at least 12 years training and the bilinguals were fluent except for 8% who were conversational level.

Groups were matched on SES (socio economic status) and non-verbal IQ. Receptive vocabulary was higher in musicians compared to non-musicians, and higher in monolinguals compared to bilinguals. These differences were expected and dealt with statistically at the analysis phase.

Computer_keyboardTask switching was tested with the Quantity/Identity task. Participants saw various digits on a screen and had to indicate either the total number they could see (Quantity: 1 or 3) or their type (Identity: 1s or 3s).

For dual task the participants completed the Krantz paradigm, a visual paradigm that required people to track a white dot while also attending to letters. They also completed a dual n-back task where they had to track and report a target letter in a series.


  • Musicians performed better on task switching and dual task challenges compared to non-musicians.
  • Bilinguals showed no task advantages compared to monolinguals.
  • There were no additive effects of musicianship and bilingualism.


Musicians’ advantage in task switching related to their reduced Global costs. On average they were 150ms faster in processing trials when they may have needed to switch at any moment. The authors conclude that their result reflects musicians’ superior ability to maintain and manipulate competing information in their working memory.

A lack of musician effect in Local switch costs by contrast may reflect the fact that while musicians can better target their working memory ability, they are not superior at immediate inhibitory control.

The lack of any effects in bilinguals is not in line with the literature – the authors speculate that their non-finding may be a result of their task, which was verbal in nature. Previous positive findings may also have been driven by group differences in SES or non-verbal IQ, which were controlled in this study.

Given that the authors found no bilingualism effects it is no surprise that they failed to find any additive effects of musicianship and bilingualism. This does not mean that no effect exists – just that no evidence was found in this study.

Final points

Blue_question_markOnce again we see evidence for a musician advantage in complex cognition. It is tempting to draw conclusions but we must remember that my original questions remains unanswered by this kind of study – how might this effect occur? Why does musicianship render advantages in task switching and dual task challenges? Following results of this kind we can only speculate.

Future studies in the area of musician transfer effects need to address the limitations of cross sectional designs (comparing two groups). Ideally studies would investigate skills on a continuum (musicians of a different number of years in training, or bilinguals on a scale of fluency) to show linear impacts of training rather than presence or absence.

The ultimate design is random assignment to groups and pre/post testing. This is possible though it requires risk as the studies could take many months if not years while the training goes on. However, these kinds of studies are necessary to establish if musical training or bilingualism positively affects our mental abilities in a general way.

Right. I will leave you with that Dear Reader. Time to put away my tea cup, don my Grandma’s hat, and break out once again into the cold November morning.

Music and Neurosciences V – Blog 2 (Musical expertise and more?)

Hello Dear Reader

BreadButterKnifeDay 2 of Music and Neurosciences began well, as only a breakfast in France can….freshly baked bread and President Butter!! Oh if only this stuff was part of a healthy diet. No harm in a treat when you are in one of the homes of good food though ;-) After enjoying my breakfast I wobbled to the conference in time for the official welcome from the representatives of Dijon and the local university.

The first symposium of the day was arranged by Sylvain Moreno, a researcher whose who features quite a lot in my new book.  Sylvain has a big interest in the transfer effects of musical expertise. He started a few years ago, working on the theory that there was likely to be transfer between music and language skills. It appears now that the interest is turning to attentional control…

But more on Sylvain’s work in a minute…

The symposim was entitled ‘Music expertise and more? ‘

First we had a presentation by Vesa Putkinen, who made use of the visually stimulating Prezi format for his presentation. This software makes a nice change from PowerPoint but the hardware did appear to struggle a little with the transitions. Nevertheless, the presentation contained some fantastic longitudinal studies of musical training.

Longitudinal studies are an important step forward in the search for music transfer effects. They are expensive and suffer from high dropout rates but they help isolate the effects of music training that (ideally) are not present before the training starts.

Me in EEG!
Me in EEG!

In one of Vesa’s projects (MusicPupils) he reported 1-6 recordings for children from the age of 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, and 17yrs. That is an impressive data set of ten years testing! His measure is EEG and he reported increases in MMN (mismatch negativity) amplitude in children who took music lessons compared to a control group. The increased neural response applied to tests of melody, rhythm, mistuning and timbre.


One of his interesting findings related to an EEG component indicative of attention (P3a). Vesa reported a difference in this component in musical individuals compared to controls at age 13-15, but then not between 15-17 years of age. The possibility is that musical children might see early advantages in attentional processing that equalise to control children later in life.

lisa_singing_by_steven4554-d3fn7hbThe next talk came from Dana Strait who gave a succinct presentation on the work she has completed with Nina Kraus regarding the cABR or complex auditory brain stem response. Complex refers to complex sounds like speech and music as opposed to simple sine tones. Her research has looked at over 300 individuals from three different cross section populations, pre-schoolers, older children and adolescents.

The older children and adolescents but not the pre-schoolers reliably show more faithful reproduction of harmonics in noise.

Dana discussed a theory as to how musical training may sharpen basic neural responses. This theory centres on cellular changes in a brain structure called the inferior colliculus. This crucial pathway in the auditory system may play a crucial role in promoting the acquisition of related learned abilities such as language.

Painting_kidThe third talk came from the chair, Sylvain Moreno. He talked about intervention programs, where music lessons are introduced, compared usually to visual art lessons.

In previous studies, after one month of lessons, musical interventions have been associated with better verbal IQ.

Newer studies in older adults suggest that inhibitory control may also be enhanced following musical training.

Following his data with children and adults, Sylvain has adopted a 3D model of music transfer effects characterised by the levels and nature of the transfer. This framework offers a model for future testing in this area.

The final talk was given by Glenn Schellenberg. Glenn summarised his thoughts on the transfer evidence to date, adding a welcome note of caution that musical training is likely to be a cause as well as a consequence of enhanced cognitive abilities and that differentiating these factors is very difficult – though longitudinal intervention studies are perhaps the best way to tackle this issue.

ukeleleGlenn spoke about his work linking personality to music transfer effects; perhaps different personality dimensions in children and adults. This will be a factor that of importance for future studies to consider. Glenn also gave described some new data linking a ukulele intervention in schools to an increase in social skills, as assessed by questionnaires.

The questions from the crowd at the end of this session were interesting but I thought the best came from Andrea Halpern who brought up the issue of having proper control groups for transfer studies. It is of course not obvious what is the correct control group for any one study and this would probably depend on the hypothesis in question.But this is a serious issue that needs to be considered in any intervention stufy.

A good morning’s brain activity! I headed for a nice cup of tea (yes, you can take the girl out of Britain…) and a chat with colleagues.