We can approach anything in life as either a means to an end or as an end in itself. Or we might not feel we need to make this distinction and decide that some things are both. It has been demonstrated that music has cognitive benefits; people who learn an instrument have at least a little improvement in brain function. But most people pursue music for the sake of pursuing music. Any cognitive improvement is a welcome side effect.
It seems that ‘music training does for brain what exercise does for body fitness’ . But we might do well to look at the specifics here. If we exercise only one type muscle in the body we might only achieve one type of improvement. Similarly, if we exercise our brain through music we might expect that only find our musical ability will improving. But this is not the case. The sections of the brain used for music are the sections that develop the most, but these also benefit other areas of thinking life. Speech, Language, general auditory processing and emotion are improved, and these serve to benefit other areas.
Auditory learning requires effective sound–to–meaning correlations. This connects to thinking skills that connect sensory input (what we hear and see) with memory and manipulating thoughts. In other words, music helps memory and processing of thought, at least to some extent.
Some studies are a little vague about an obvious question – is it listening to music or learning music that improves cognition? The answer appears to be both, but that music lessons give the far greater advantage. After some time learning at music school the students were better at picking up information in normal speech, formal lessons and in watching film. They also appeared to have an advantage in learning any foreign language, especially if the foreign language contained components different to their native speech. Music students were better at picking up glides and other sound not already familiar with the language they spoke.
Music lessons seem to increase IQ results, at least to some degree. This does not make musicians smarter than non-musicians, but it makes individuals smarter than what they would be if they were not musicians. Lessons conducted as part of the regular school curriculum may have some benefit, but the studies conducted so far have used students from a separate music school.
A serious question here is the time take. Learning an instrument by years of music lessons is quite time consuming. It appears to confer benefits, but is the amount of time spent worth it for the cognitive results achieved? Learning a foreign language also improves cognition; for some individuals a foreign language might be more beneficial. Then again, if a person enjoys the process of learning the time spent is not really a problem, and any benefits are just a bonus.