Received: 31 August 2009 Accepted:9 May 2010 Published online: 28 May 2010
Behavioural and neuroimaging studies provide evidence for a possible "sensitive" period in childhood development during which musical training results in long-lasting changes in brain structure and auditory and motor performance. Previous work from our laboratory has shown that adult musicians who begin training before the age of 7 (early-trained; ET) perform better on a visuomotor task than those who begin after the age of 7 (late-trained; LT), even when matched on total years of musical training and experience. Two questions were raised regarding the findings from this experiment. First, would this group performance difference be observed using a more familiar, musically relevant task such as auditory rhythms? Second, would cognitive abilities mediate this difference in task performance? To address these questions, ET and LT musicians, matched on years of musical training, hours of current practice and experience, were tested on an auditory rhythm synchronization task. The task consisted of six woodblock rhythms of varying levels of metrical complexity. In addition, participants were tested on cognitive subtests measuring vocabulary, working memory and pattern recognition. The two groups of musicians differed in their performance of the rhythm task, such that the ET musicians were better at reproducing the temporal structure of the rhythms. There were no group differences on the cognitive measures. Interestingly, across both groups, individual task performance correlated with auditory working memory abilities and years of formal training. These results support the idea of a sensitive period during the early years of childhood for developing sensorimotor synchronization abilities via musical training.