Children with musical training have an advantage when it comes to identifying statistical patterns hidden in both audio and visual cues, a new study conducted by Macquarie University researchers has found.

The results of the study, published in Clinical Neurophysiology, suggest that children with training in a musical instrument also have enhanced statistical learning ability. Statistical learning ability is a process of learning in humans that involves detecting regularities within an environment. For instance, though a reader may not be familiar with every word in a sentence, they can use several statistical regularities to help assess the likelihood of various letter combinations. These regularities are implicitly learnt over time by reading thousands of English sentences.

“We found that children who had some form of musical training also performed better in statistical learning tasks, which indicates that training in auditory tasks, such as learning a musical instrument, may also help kids with their ability to detect patterns”, explained lead author of the study Dr Pragati Mandikal-Vasuki in the published research.

“This [statistical learning ability] is a key building block of learning a language, learning to read and also learning a second language”, she added. “It’s a fundamental ability”.

Researchers used an array of behavioural detection mechanisms to test for the auditory-related and statistical learning abilities of children, aged between nine and 11, with and without musical training.

“Understandably, behavioural testing showed that children with some form of musical training were better at melody discrimination, rhythm discrimination, and frequency discrimination. It also indicated that they were better at auditory statistical learning, but not necessarily visual statistical learning”, said Dr Mandikal-Vasuki.

However, when researchers measured brain activity instead of behavioural cues, they realised that music training gave children another advantage.

“We could see evidence that the brains of children with musical training were quicker to detect statistical regularities across both sound and visual stimuli, indicating that musical training not only increases a child’s ability to pinpoint a hidden sound pattern, but also potentially, a visual pattern too”, said Dr Mandikal-Vasuki.

“We were surprised with the brain activity results especially because they revealed that as little as a year-and-a-half of music training made a difference”, she added.

The findings also suggest that music-based therapies may be a potential avenue for treating children with specific types of learning impairment.

“These results add another layer of understanding to our current knowledge of how musical training alters learning pathways in the brain, and could help us to develop programs, potentially based on musical-learning therapies, to better treat children and adults who have particular types of learning difficulties”, explained Dr Mandikal-Vasuki.