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Do Musical Instruments Spread the Coronavirus?

As with pretty much every other activity right now, having the quintet gather outdoors is a great idea. If any neighbors complain, explain that the backyard practices are part of a global effort to keep them from dying. If anyone happens to be infected, any virus that emanates in the heat of performance will likely fade into the sky and disperse like the music itself. Indoors, as any parent of a child who’s learning an instrument knows, everything is trapped and can echo around the room indefinitely.

Some instruments do seem to pose more risk than others. Obviously, string instruments can be played without even opening your mouth, but it sounds like your daughter’s quintet is too far along to take kindly to a suggestion that they all learn new instruments. Because the virus is sent into the air by talking, coughing, and singing—any forcible exhalation of air through the pharynx—playing a woodwind or brass instrument would logically pose a risk. These instruments are effectively designed to amplify what’s coming out of our mouths and to carry the sound. A 2011 study of vuvuzelas (the long, straight plastic horns that people blow at soccer games) found that their capacity for spreading infections could be tremendous. Compared with shouting, blowing through the horn sent several hundred times more particles into the air.

Thankfully for everyone, kids don’t train for vuvuzela quintets. Woodwind and brass instruments send air through a maze of twists and turns, and buttons create turbulent airflow patterns that don’t simply shoot everything out in a piercing plume. Breathing into a convoluted contraption such as a saxophone or a tuba, then, actually serves as a sort of filter that collects the larger droplets you might be spewing out. This is familiar to anyone who has emptied a spit valve and seen what pours out.

The real question is the potential danger of smaller, aerosolized particles that can blast out of an instrument and linger in the air. In May, the Vienna Philharmonic reported that it had conducted a study of the aerosols from various instruments. Researchers hooked tubes up to musicians’ noses, and as they played, they inhaled an aerosolized salt solution that could be visualized when it was exhaled. The researchers mapped the clouds of air around musicians while they were playing and reported that none of the instruments sent respiratory droplets beyond the commonly recommended radius of six feet. In most cases, no significant amount of the aerosolized salt particles were detectable coming out the end of the wind and brass instruments. Flutes were the worst offender, passing a “large amount” of aerosol in a cloud covering two and a half feet.

In July, another study in Germany offered findings and hope similar to those from Vienna. But neither study measured actual coronavirus particles, and the overall evidence is still thin. Doctors at the University of Iowa have expressed concern about the rigor of both findings, given

Musical training boosts attention, working memory in children

Oct. 8 (UPI) — New research out of Chile suggests kids that play musical instruments, regularly practicing and performing, benefit from improved attention and working memory.

For the study, published Thursday in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, researchers measured attention control and auditory encoding processes in the brains of musically trained children and a control group of children.

“There were no differences between groups in age, IQ and parental education, a proxy of socioeconomic status,” lead study author Leonie Kausel, a violinist and neuroscientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, told UPI in an email.

“This is important, because these three factors are known to have an influence on the functioning of executive functions,” said Kausel, a neuroscientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, who also plays violin.

All of the musically trained children, ages 10 to 13, had been playing an instrument for at least two years and practiced at least two hours per week.

Researchers had the two groups of children perform tasks that tested their auditory-visual attention and working memory. Functional magnetic resonance imaging allowed scientists to detect small changes in blood flow within the brain as the children performed the tasks.

Study participants were asked to focus on either one, both or neither of two stimuli: a visual abstract figure and a short melody. The stimuli were presented simultaneously for four seconds.

Two seconds later, the children were replayed various stimuli and asked if they recognized them. The replayed stimuli were sometimes the same as the original stimuli and other times novel.

Children who played and practiced musical instruments more accurately recognized the stimuli and had faster reaction times.

The fMRI images helped scientists identify two main neural mechanisms explaining the difference in attention and working memory performance: a domain-general attention mechanism and a domain-specific auditory encoding mechanism.

“The domain-general attention mechanism controls our attentional resources and is used when we pay attention to something — independent of what we pay attention to, for example, stimuli in different sensory modalities,” Kausel said. “So in our study this mechanism seems to play a role in the encoding of both visual and auditory stimuli.”

“The domain-specific auditory encoding mechanism on the other hand is more specific to support auditory encoding, independent of whether you are paying attention to the auditory stimuli or not,” Kausel said.

By asking participants to pay attention or not pay attention to one or both of the stimuli, and imaging the resulting brain activity, researchers were able to isolate the different neural mechanisms.

“When you subtract the activity from paying attention minus not paying attention, the ‘difference’ can be attributed to the cognitive process of paying attention or encoding of the stimuli,” Kausel said.

The tests revealed higher activity of the fronto-parietal attention control network in the musically trained group of children. There was also higher functioning of the phonological loop, the inferior frontal gyrus and supramarginal gyrus, among the instrument-playing children.

While the latest study showed a correlation between the two