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Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2012 Apr;1252:163-70. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2011.06434.x.

A sensitive period for musical training: contributions of age of onset and cognitive abilities.

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Psychology Department, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.


The experiences we engage in during childhood can stay with us well into our adult years. The idea of a sensitive period--a window during maturation when our brains are most influenced by behavior--has been proposed. Work from our laboratory has shown that early-trained musicians (ET) performed better on visual-motor and auditory-motor synchronization tasks than late-trained musicians (LT), even when matched for total musical experience. Although the groups of musicians showed no cognitive differences, working memory scores correlated with task performance. In this study, we have replicated these findings in a larger sample of musicians and included a group of highly educated nonmusicians (NM). Participants performed six woodblock rhythms of varying levels of metrical complexity and completed cognitive subtests measuring verbal abilities, working memory, and pattern recognition. Working memory scores correlated with task performance across all three groups. Interestingly, verbal abilities were stronger among the NM, while nonverbal abilities were stronger among musicians. These findings are discussed in context of the sensitive period hypothesis as well as the debate surrounding cognitive differences between musicians and NM.

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