The benefits of experiencing, learning about, and playing music don’t end with childhood. Not only does music enhance the lives of all adults, but it plays a major role in strengthening the cognitive abilities of seniors in particular. Scientists—and music teachers—have long understood that music stimulates parts of the brain responsible for higher mental and emotional functions. Here is an outline of how that works:
1. Greater mental acuity
The early benefits that accrue from studying a musical instrument can make your brain more resilient over the course of your life. These benefits have even been shown to help people overcome multiple deficits that come with normal aging. Older adults who played a musical instrument during their childhood tended to hold onto the early gains in brain functioning.
A study conducted by the Emory University neurology department demonstrated that seniors who played a musical instrument for at least 10 years scored higher on tests of memory and general intellectual ability than did their counterparts who did not have any musical training.
When older adults take part in music and arts programming, they also experience improvements in their overall physical and social health. This participation strengthens their sense of being part of a community, their ability to form bonds with others, and their sense of personal identity. And when seniors participate in creating music or even in listening experiences, they also tend to experience more satisfaction with their quality of life and well-being.
Music lessons may also play a role in preventing some aspects of physical aging. One group of researchers found that senior musicians’ auditory cortexes—the part of the brain involved in the sense of hearing—did not age as much as those of their non-musical counterparts. These seniors were therefore less likely to experience hearing loss with age. Experts point out that even for those who begin musical training far beyond childhood, similar benefits can occur.
2. Improved memory
In one recent study at the University of California, Irvine, researchers determined that after listening to classical music, adults with Alzheimer’s disease showed improvements in their performance on memory tests. Another study showed that older adults between the ages of 60 and 85 who took half-hour piano lessons every week and practiced for an additional three hours demonstrated significant gains in their ability to memorize and assimilate information after only a few months. These older adults went into the study with no prior serious musical experience.
Additional research has shown that background music had a positive effect on older adults’ memories. This held true for both semantic memory—dealing with facts—and episodic memory—dealing with personal experiences—as well as for the ability to rapidly absorb and understand new information. In this study, the test subjects were adults who were not musicians and who had a mean age of 69 years.
In the study, researchers used recordings of pieces by composers Mozart and Mahler, and introduced a white noise control segment and another control segment without music. They tested the subjects’ performance for each of these four segments, with the musical pieces and the white noise played as the background both prior to and during tests that included memorizing lists of words and creating as many words as possible beginning with a particular letter.
By listening to both Mozart and Mahler, seniors demonstrated improved performance on examinations of semantic and episodic memory. Mozart, in particular, fostered an increase in the speed of mental processing. On the other hand, Mahler did not seem to aid in mental processing speed over the white noise or the “music-less” segments of the test.
One reason why the seniors performed better while listening to Mozart may be that they identified the composer’s music as being more conducive to feelings of happiness. They found Mahler, an early 20th century composer noted as a pioneer in the incorporation of massive dissonances in his music, to be sadder in tone. The researchers theorized that when their test subjects felt happier, their speed of mental performance increased. They also noted that the pieces by both composers used in the test lacked lyrics and theorized that the distraction of listening to lyrics during the testing might have impaired memorization.
3. Reduced stress
Participation in music-related activities has also been shown to decrease stress levels in adults. An analysis of hundreds of studies has demonstrated music’s ability to reduce feelings of depression and produce a more calm, focused state of mind in adults of all ages. When adults listen to a musical performance or play music themselves as part of a group, their levels of the chemicals oxytocin and dopamine tend to increase. Oxytocin in the body promotes feelings of trustfulness and closeness to others, while increases in dopamine levels are associated with better concentration and a general elevation in mood.
Other research even finds a correlation between listening to music and experiencing a reduction in pain. For example, in one study, adults demonstrated a reduction in chronic pain symptoms by more than 20 percent and in feelings of depression by as much as 25 percent when listening to music.