A new study suggests that playing music is instrumental to being able to smoothly switch between tasks - even more so than learning another language.

In psychology, the term 'task switching' describes the ability to quickly shift your attention between two tasks. Previous studies have suggested that there are many benefits to playing a musical instrument or being bilingual, including enriching mental development and better cognitive function. 

A team of psychologists from York University in Canada were interested in seeing if the skills held by musicians and bilingual individuals could help them with task switching. They predicted both groups would perform better than average, but the results showed that only one outperformed the rest.

The study, published in the journal Cognitive Science, involved 153 students who were separated into four groups - monolingual musicians, bilingual musicians, monolingual non-musicians, and bilingual non-musicians. The musicians had an average of 12 years of formal musical training, and 88 percent of them were instrumentalists. 

The participants were asked to complete a number of tests that measured their ability to switch between two mental tasks. In one activity, they were "required to track a moving white dot (while) at the same time, they attended to single capitalized serif letters flashing one at a time in the centre of the computer screen. Participants were required to click the mouse button whenever they saw the target letter X," says Tom Jacobs from Pacific Standard.

The results showed that the musicians performed much better than non-musicians, but surprisingly, the bilingual participants did not. 

"Musicians' extensive training requires maintenance and manipulation of complex stimuli in memory, such as notes, melody, pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and the emotional tone of a musical piece," write the authors of the study. They report that this meticulous training "may help them to develop superior control to respond efficiently to stimuli in an environment where both switching and non-switching components exist."

More research is yet to be done, but in the meantime, why not tune up on your multitasking skills by learning an instrument.

Source: Pacific Standard