• Three Research-Backed Insights about Music and Aging

    Posted on May 8, 2015 by Jessica Ryan in Accessibility.



    Ths PSO’s Principal Flute, Lorna McGhee, and Principal Second Violin, Jennifer Ross, play during a November 2013 cognitive therapy session at the VA.

    Last Tuesday I had the privilege of accompanying two PSO musicians, Principal Flute Lorna McGhee and Principal Second Violin Jennifer Ross, on a visit to the Day Center at Community Life- Homestead. Over 50 participants spent an hour with the musicians, who played everything from Telemann duets to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” quizzed participants with a game of “name that tune,” and answered questions about their time in the PSO and other orchestras.

    Several participants spoke with Lorna and Jenny after the visit, and one particularly raved about the program. A former symphony subscriber who loves composers like Beethoven and Piazzola, she said, “I’ve been very depressed lately and this music helped enormously. You can’t know how much this has helped me.” She especially enjoyed hearing an aria from The Magic Flute. “I couldn’t believe it when the musicians started playing it!” she exclaimed.

    According to Community Life’s music therapist, Deanna Diederich, “She [this participant] doesn’t always engage easily and happily. It was a really nice moment for her to have something that brought such joy to her.”

    The BUDI Orchestra, featured in a blog post last month, shows how music can likewise bring joy to people with dementia and keep them connected to their caregivers and other loved ones. What you can plainly see in the video, as well as today’s story, is also backed up by research that shows the value of music for all people as they age. Although we still have many questions about how music affects the aging brain, studies like the three summarized below have potentially linked making or listening to music to a variety of cognitive and emotional benefits. Here’s what they have found:


    Playing an instrument for 10+ years is associated with improved cognition in older adults.[i]

    When measuring the cognitive abilities of 70 healthy adults between the ages of 60 and 83, researchers found that compared to people with less than one year of musical training, individuals who learned an instrument for at least 10 years displayed significantly better nonverbal memory, object-naming, and executive processing skills (such as greater cognitive flexibility). Those who played music for 1-9 years performed better than non-musicians but not as well as the other musicians; however, these differences were not significant. It also didn’t matter whether a person still played his/her instrument. Accordingly, if you’ve studied music for 10+ years, even if you only played as a child, you might still reap the rewards of your hard work in old age. Might is the key word, however, since the study didn’t look at causation and only found only an association between musical study and cognitive functioning.

    Beginning instrument lessons before the age of nine may strengthen verbal working memory.[ii]

    In this study, a follow-up to the first, researchers again worked with 70 adults, this time between the ages of 59 and 80. The subjects in one group had played an instrument for at least 10 years, and those in the other group had no musical training. Compared to the non-musical cohort, musicians performed significantly better on tests of verbal working memory, immediate verbal recall, phonemic fluency, and visuospatial processing and judgment. People who had spent more time studying their instruments also demonstrated more advanced visuospatial functioning than other musicians, although musicians who hadn’t played as many years could minimize these differences by continuing to play as they aged. Furthermore, musicians who began learning an instrument before the age of nine had a stronger verbal working memory than other subjects. Thus, it may be important to begin training early and play throughout your life in order to maximize the cognitive benefits of instrumental study.

    Singing and music listening can lift mood and enhance executive functioning for people with dementia.[iii]

    To learn how music might affect the quality of life of individuals with dementia, this study randomly assigned 89 pairs of caregivers and people with dementia into three groups. One group participated in a 10-week singing program, one attended 10 weeks of music listening sessions, and  a third control group received standard care without music. People participating in the music interventions sang or listened to familiar songs. In the singing group, they practiced rhythms and vocal exercises, while the listening group spoke about the music and their memories. Everyone in the singing and listening groups engaged in musical activities at home as well.

    Compared to those in the control group, the people exposed to music experienced short-term benefits in mood, cognition, attention, and executive function. Singing also led to improvements in short-term and working memory, while music listening led to significantly higher quality of life. Nine months into the study, people who had participated in musical activities remained more oriented in time and place than members of the control group as well. Although this study only began to explore the role music can play in increasing quality of life for people with dementia, it supports anecdotal evidence demonstrating that this population can engage meaningfully and derive benefits from musical experiences.


    So what does all of this mean? For one, we have much to learn about how music playing and listening shapes the brain at all stages of life; however, with each passing year we come a little closer to understanding the full value of musical experiences. Although we may not completely understand the cognitive benefits of music learning yet, no one can deny that making or listening to music is intrinsically worthwhile. We can consider any other benefits as a bonus. Therefore, I encourage you to pull out your instrument or start learning something new! As the members of the BUDI Orchestra demonstrate, it’s never too late to begin a musical journey.

    [i] Hanna-Pladdy, Brenda, and Alicia MacKay.  “The Relation Between Instrumental Musical Activity and Cognitive Aging.”  Neuropsychology  25.3  (2011) :  378-386.  Web.  23 April 2015.

    [ii] Hanna-Pladdy, Brenda, and Byron Gajewski.  “Recent and past musical activity predicts cognitive aging variability: direct comparison with general lifestyle activities.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience  6.198  (2012) :  n.p.  Web.  23 April 2015.

    [iii] Särkämö, Teppo, et al.  “Cognitive, Emotional, and Social Benefits of Regular Musical Activities in Early Dementia: Randomized Controlled Study.”  The Gerontologist  54.4  (2014) :  634-650.  Web.  23 April 2015.

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