Does Musical Training Influence Cognitive Aging?

Shubert Impromptu in A Flat Major

Does musical training have any effect on the aging brain? Scientists at the University of Kansas Medical Center asked this question. They wondered whether the experience of learning and practicing an instrument and the resulting sensorimotor and cognitive abilities might help a person much later when aging changes begin to occur.

In The Relation Between Instrumental Musical Activity and Cognitive Aging (abstract, the article is not freely available), researchers Brenda Hanna-Pladdy and Alicia MacKay describe how they evaluated 70 adults between the ages of 60 and 83, placing them into three groups. All participants were given a broad range of memory tests.

All participants were matched closely in terms of age, education, and level of physical activity, and everyone was living independently. Each group represented a different level of musical training and activity.

  • Group I – subjects who had never received any formal musical training.
  • Group II – subjects who had musical training from 1 year to 9 years and some formal training
  • Group II – subjects who had at least 10 years of playing an instrument on a regular basis and had formal training.

My Piano with Mozart Variations

According to the article, published in the journal Neuropsychology, “The results of the study revealed significant differences between high activity musicians and nonmusicians on measures of naming, nonverbal memory recall, visuomotor speed, visu0motor sequencing, and cognitive flexibility.”

In this research, the cognitive domains in which the experienced musicians outperformed nonmusicians are “…consistent with susceptible areas of cognitive decline in advanced age.” Thus the authors believe that their research demonstrates an association between an individual’s high musical activity and preserved cognitive function as a person ages. To review the concept of association you can read my post Association vs. Causation: The Basics.

This press release at the American Psychological Association provides a lot more information about the research.

Music — a subject dear to my heart!  So many musicians do seem to age gracefully. In my 50’s I have returned to the piano with great gusto, and it’s bringing me a good deal of joy.

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