Music & Memory,  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.

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