Can learning to play the piano have positive effects on cognitive function, mood, and overall quality of life in older adults? According to a recent study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the answer is a resounding yes.
Listening to Music Lights the Brain Up, Playing Music Sets It On Fire
Just listening to music has been shown to activate multiple regions in the brain, including areas related to memory, attention, language processing, motor function, and emotion. But playing a musical instrument enhances those functions even more. In fact, neuropsychologists have concluded that so many brain functions are involved in playing an instrument that music training is a valuable framework for studying the progression of brain plasticity during a lifetime.
Brain imaging studies reveal that there are significant differences between musicians and non-musicians. Put simply, musicians (at least serious ones) have more “gray matter” in the multiple areas of the brain involved in music-making.
Music Makes Kids Smarter, Why Not Adults Too?
Up to now, most research on the effects of music training has been conducted on children. Studies have shown increases in IQ and changes in brain structure related to aural and motor skills. In one study, music training was shown to beneficially influence language abilities vs. painting lessons which didn’t – sorry, art teachers!
The Piano Players Got Smarter & Happier
Cognitive reserve is the neuropsychologist’s term for explaining how the brain works to overcome deterioration in its functions by utilizing other resources at its disposal. (The validity of cognitive reserve was confirmed by the discovery of advanced Alzheimer’s disease in the brains of recently-deceased individuals who had never actually experienced symptoms of Alzheimer’s.)
Previous studies have shown that engaging in regular leisure activities that stimulate the brain, such as reading, writing, or doing crossword puzzles result in enhanced cognitive well-being and a reduced risk of developing dementia. This study aimed to investigate the effects of piano training for the elderly vs. other types of leisure activities such as doing crossword puzzles.
The results were noteworthy. Significant improvements were found in multiple brain functions (specifically: executive function, inhibitory control, divided attention, visual scanning and motor ability) for the piano players versus the control group. Put simply, the piano players got smarter.
Improvements were also found in mood including decreases in depression and overall improvement in the psychological quality of life. The piano players got happier.
A Personal Response
I’m of two minds about studies like this. On the one hand, I appreciate the interest that researchers take in music, showing the benefits of playing that go beyond the usual reasons for taking up an instrument. On the other hand, the dominance of the scientific method can lead some people to assume that music has no inherent value except for any objective side effects that studies like this one manage to prove.
So I say, even if learning to play a musical instrument like the piano did not provide all of these wonderful mental and emotional benefits for people of all ages, it would be worth learning for its own sake.