Why do some people seem to be more adaptable than others?

We’ve all been there: You’re working with someone who just can’t seem to adapt to you. Maybe this is at your job, where someone has a particular way of doing things and just can’t work differently despite the needs of a group project. Or maybe you’re playing music with a group of people, where one person just seems to do their own thing while everyone else has to adapt. 

Many papers have been interested in situations similar to the second scenario described above. How is it that people can adapt their movements to sudden and unpredictable changes in their auditory environments? In a paper just recently published in Experimental Brain Research, we decided to investigate how musical training may promote adaptability in these kinds of situations. 

“How is it that people can adapt their movements to sudden and unpredictable changes in their auditory environments?”

To look at this question, we brought musicians and nonmusicians into the lab. To test their adaptability, we asked individuals to synchronize their tapping with an auditory sequence that would suddenly and unexpectedly change its rate. The task of our participants was to continue synchronizing with the auditory sequence even when the rate changed. We looked at how quickly and how well musicians and nonmusicians were able to adapt following these sudden rate changes.

Our results showed that musicians were better able to adapt to sudden rate changes than nonmusicians. After just a few beats at the new rate, musicians were able to adjust their rate of tapping to the new rate of the auditory sequence. Nonmusicians had more trouble, showing both longer time to adapt to rate changes and difficulty fully adapting to changes before the rate changed again.

“Our results showed that musicians were better able to adapt to sudden rate changes than nonmusicians.”

These results suggest that musical training may enhance our ability to adapt our movements to sudden changes in our auditory environment. However, there is one important caveat. Our findings did not show correlational relationships between how quickly or well individuals were able to adapt and certain musical training measurements like years of one-on-one training on an instrument or how often an individual performed with others in groups. We may need more sensitive measures to get at the exact aspects of training that may influence adaptability.

“With further research, we can hopefully start to understand just how musical training may broaden our limits of coordination.”

This study extends upon our previous findings, further suggesting that musical training may benefit our adaptability, an important component of flexible behaviour. With further research, we can hopefully start to understand just how musical training may broaden our limits of coordination. This can only benefit our understanding of adaptation within larger group contexts like ensemble music performance, classrooms, dance performances, and more, where coordination is make or break.

Further Reading

Musical training may help us coordinate our actions more accurately and flexibly

There has been a lot of debate among researchers about the kinds of benefits musical training might provide to people. You may have heard about the Mozart effect, a controversial idea that listening to Mozart’s music makes people smarter. In fact, this idea became so popular that a United States governor even budgeted for every child in the state of Georgia to receive a classical music CD!

In actuality, things are not this clear-cut. There are many studies out there investigating possible benefits of musical training. Researchers have examined relationships between musical training and intelligence (Shellenberg, 2004), executive functions like the ability to inhibit inappropriate responses (Slater, Azem, Nicol, Swedenborg, & Kraus, 2017), and more. But to date we still don’t have a great understanding about how musical training changes our overall cognitive function.

“In fact, this idea became so popular that a United States governor even budgeted for every child in the state of Georgia to receive a classical music CD!”

The effects that do seem to be more clear are those from tasks closer to music itself. Research has suggested that musicians are better able to perceive speech in noisy environments (Parbery-Clark, Skoe, Lam, & Kraus, 2009), and that musicians can more accurately synchronize their actions with sound (Aschersleben, 2002). In our paper published in Frontiers in Psychology, we decided to investigate whether musicians are also more flexible in their rates of synchronization with sound.

To look at this question, we brought musicians and nonmusicians into the lab. To test their flexibility, we asked individuals to synchronize their tapping with an auditory sequence at a variety of rates. Consistent with previous research, we found that musicians more accurately synchronized their tapping with the auditory sequence. More interestingly, we also found that musicians were better able to adjust their actions to achieve accurate synchronization at new sequence rates.

Our research suggests that musical training may indeed benefit flexibility of coordination. Flexibility is a necessary skill for achieving high fluency in music performance. However, these skills span beyond the scope of music. Being able to flexibly coordinate our actions with sound allows us to adaptively respond to sounds in our environment as well as to our peers.

“Our research suggests that musical training may indeed benefit flexibility of coordination.”

You can imagine a situation where an auditory crosswalk signal changes pace and you must adapt your walking to cross the street more quickly. Or perhaps adapting your speaking rate so as not to interrupt a conversation partner. These findings have wide implications for group behaviours which we are now only starting to understand, providing exciting directions for future research. 

Further Reading