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PLoS One. 2016 Jul 29;11(7):e0159608. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0159608. eCollection 2016.

Experience Playing a Musical Instrument and Overnight Sleep Enhance Performance on a Sequential Typing Task.

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Center for Sleep and Cognition, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, MA, United States of America.
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, United States of America.


The smooth, coordinated fine motor movements required to play a musical instrument are not only highly valued in our society; they also predict academic success in areas that generalize beyond the motor domain, including reading and math readiness, and verbal abilities. Interestingly, motor skills that overlap with those required to play a musical instrument (e.g., sequential finger tapping) markedly improve (get faster) over a night of sleep, but not after a day spent awake. Here we studied whether individuals who play musical instruments that require fine finger motor skill are better able to learn and consolidate a simple motor skill task compared to those who do not play an instrument, and whether sleep-specific motor skill benefits interact with those imparted by musical experience. We used the motor sequence task (MST), which taps into a core skill learned and used by musicians, namely, the repetition of learned sequences of key presses. Not surprisingly, we found that musicians were faster than non-musicians throughout the learning session, typing more correct sequences per 30-sec trial. In the 12hrs that followed learning we found that sleep and musical experience both led to greater improvement in performance. Surprisingly, musicians retested after a day of wake performed slightly better than non-musicians who had slept between training and retest, suggesting that musicians have the capacity to consolidate a motor skill across waking hours, while non-musicians appear to lack this capacity. These findings suggest that the musically trained brain is optimized for motor skill consolidation across both wake and sleep, and that sleep may simply promote a more effective use of this machinery. In sum, there may be something special about musicians, perhaps a neurophysiological advantage, that leads to both the expected-greater motor speed at learning-and the surprising-greater motor skill improvement over time.

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