At four years old, Wendy Wang already spends hours a day at the piano. She's also learning how to compose music at The New Music School in Chicago.
Children like Wendy may discover added benefits from their lessons that have nothing at all to do with music. Two research studies at Northwestern University and the University of Kansas are the first to show that early music training improves the thinking and hearing abilities of those kids when they become senior citizens.
At Northwestern, Dr. Nina Kraus, Ph.D, showed that older adult musicians who began lessons as children were better than non-musicians at hearing conversations in a noisy, crowded room. She believes it's because the ability to pick out all the different notes and sounds on an instrument tunes their brain to do the same thing with words.
"Musicians have a lot of practice hearing and picking out relevant pieces of information from a complex sound scape," said Dr. Kraus.
Rick Wunder, 62-year-old trombone player, participated in the study. He has a group of friends to play trivia games at a neighborhood sports bar.
"They are pretty noisy places" said Wunder, "and I've noticed that at least one of the other guys, he isn't able to hear me very well, and I never seem to have that much trouble hearing them."
While at the University of Kansas, Dr. Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, Ph.D, checked out the thinking ability of senior citizens who had taken music lessons as children for at least ten years.
Now at Emory University she says that the seniors scored higher than non-musicians on tests of memory and decision making ability. Like weight lifting builds muscles, she believes that music training builds reserves of memory power that postpone for years the natural decline in memory that often occurs in old age.
"It's conceivable," said Dr. Hanna-Pladdy, "that music activity creates cognitive reserves that may delay the presentation of dementia symptoms."