How Music Lessons Could Help Preserve Your Brain Health

Ever find yourself tapping your foot to a rhythm, swaying to a melody, or humming a tune? Well, there might be more to these musical engagements than pure enjoyment. A recent study suggests that taking music lessons can lead to an increase in gray matter in the brain for older adults, making a compelling case for music’s role in maintaining brain health.

A Graceful Dance of Neurons: Unpacking the Music-Brain Connection

In the face of inevitable aging, many of us harbor concerns about our cognitive health. Sure, aging might not come without a few memory slips or a slightly slower processing speed, but could we potentially slow down this cognitive decline? As it turns out, music could be the answer.

Crescendo in Gray Matter: The Key Findings of the Study

A research team reached out to 132 individuals aged 62 to 78, all of whom had never taken music lessons longer than six months at any point in their lives. Split into two groups, one received piano lessons and the other attended theoretical “musical culture” classes focusing on music appreciation, theory, and history.

Both groups undertook their respective musical journeys for an hour per week, with an added expectation of 30 minutes of daily practice or homework. The result? After six months, neuroimaging revealed an increase in gray matter in four brain regions involved in high-level cognitive functioning in all participants, showing a significant increase in performance.

Reading the Musical Score: What Does This Mean?

This isn’t to say that musical training repairs brain areas already damaged by aging. Instead, these activities seem to offer a protective layer, helping to preserve specific brain regions from the clutches of age.

However, the two groups did exhibit some differences. For instance, the right primary auditory cortex, crucial in sound processing, saw a decrease in gray matter volume in the music theory group, while it remained stable in the piano group. It seems that the hands-on practice of creating music might hold more benefits than theoretical understanding alone.

Rhapsody in Health: Practical Implications

While it’s clear that the world of music offers more than just joy, it’s important to remember that dabbling in a few lessons may not be enough. Regular practice and engagement appear key to reaping these cognitive benefits.

As the symphony of life continues, music seems to have a unique role in keeping our minds sharp. So, whether you’ve been contemplating signing up for those piano lessons, or have been meaning to dedicate more time to appreciate the classics, the cognitive benefits might well be music to your ears.

Further reading

Bengtsson, S., Nagy, Z., Skare, S. et al. Extensive piano practicing has regionally specific effects on white matter development. Nat Neurosci 8, 1148–1150 (2005).

Seinfeld, S., Figueroa, H., Ortiz-Gil, J., & Sanchez-Vives, M. V. (2013). Effects of music learning and piano practice on cognitive function, mood, and quality of life in older adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 810. Link

Rodriguez-Fornells, A., Rojo, N., Amengual, J. L., Ripollés, P., Altenmüller, E., & Münte, T. F. (2012). The involvement of audio-motor coupling in the music-supported therapy applied to stroke patients. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1252(1), 282-293. Link

Bugos, J. A., Perlstein, W. M., McCrae, C. S., Brophy, T. S., & Bedenbaugh, P. H. (2007). Individualized piano instruction enhances executive functioning and working memory in older adults. Aging & Mental Health, 11(4), 464-471. Link

Hanna-Pladdy, B., & Gajewski, B. (2012). Recent and past musical activity predicts cognitive aging variability: direct comparison with general lifestyle activities. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 198. Link