USF researchers study piano training, brain performance

USF researchers are using a musical boot camp to find out how intense piano training can alter brain performance in both children and adults.

Jennifer Bugos, an assistant professor of music education, and Nathan Maxfield, an assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders, held the piano training “interventions” to study the effects piano instruction has on cognitive abilities and auditory processing.

Previous data gathered by Bugos about piano and cognitive abilities has shown that there is a connection between increased cognitive performances with piano instruction.

In 2007, Bugos published a study of long-term effects on older adults introduced to music training in the Journal of Aging, Humanities and the Arts.

Bugos said this study is one of the first of its kind because most piano and cognitive research is studied over long periods of time instead of intense, short periods.

“This intervention is intense, and participants learn almost a year’s worth of piano training in two weeks,” Bugos said. “Think of it as a boot camp — that’s what many of our students called it.”

The camps were held for 10 days straight, for about three hours at a time, and were open to adults and children in specific age groups.

Participants were required to have little to no previous piano training, so during each instruction session, participants learned a variety of things like basic piano technique, finger dexterity exercises and music theory.

“The sessions are very difficult for both children and adults, but also rewarding,” Bugos said. “Because of the intensity, we can examine the ways in which they learn and the effects the learning has on cognitive performance like memory, planning and processing speed and other areas of executive function.”

Marcia Kutash, a USF alumna, participated in the adult piano camp and found it challenging but enjoyed her experience.

“I have always wanted to learn piano and was unsuccessful previously, “ Kutash said. “I finally learned, and it really reinvigorated my interest.”

She said the most difficult part of the piano exercises was getting her left hand to play with her right hand, but she said Bugos was spot-on in teaching her techniques and skills so she could practice and stay motivated.

Bugos said she found it important to keep such intense sessions interesting by playing games during the sessions with both the adult and child groups.

“What is really exciting about the sessions is the group format,” Bugos said. “We can have some people practice with their left or right hand, we can switch parts and we have row contests to see which row has it together the fastest.”

After the sessions are finished, the participants undergo a series of tests so Bugos and Maxfield can gather data about each student.

The study was designed so participants act as their own control group. A series of pre-screening and testing is required of each student. Immediately after the intensive piano training finished, each student went through a posttest process.

In the post-testing phase, participants went through electroencephalogram testing, measuring overall brain activity. The testing also included memory and hearing exams.

While this study focuses on finding connections between piano training and executive cognitive functions, Maxfield and Bugos said they hope to use this information as pilot data for a more comprehensive study in the future.

The USF School of Music funded the study. Research is ongoing, and after the results are published, Bugos hopes to secure federal grants to begin researching the speech and language aspect of the study as well.

“This is preliminary, but we want to look at speech and language therapy through intensive piano intervention,” Bugos said. “We want to see how it can benefit people who stutter.”

Bugos said that as the research progresses and becomes more comprehensive, so will its practical application of the research.

“In the future this could potentially help people in healthy aging, cognitive impairment and to a degree, children with learning disabilities,” she said.