Generations of parents have told their children to practice their musical instruments. Parents have good reason to continue to monitor their children’s music education, as learning an instrument is not only linked to better educational achievement but also cognitive (thinking) and even IQ scores in children. But does this musicality translate into better cognition later in life?
A recent study in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry investigated this question by asking middle-aged and older adults to fill out a questionnaire about their lifetime musical experience before completing cognitive (thinking) tests. The results showed that musicians had better memory and executive function (ability to stay focused on tasks, plan and have self-control) than those with little or no musicality.
A good memory is important for playing a musical instrument, such as playing music from memory, and this appears to translate to people’s cognitive performance. Similarly, executive function is required when playing an instrument, and this also translates into improved cognitive performance.
This finding was similar regardless of the instrument people played or the level of musical proficiency people attained — although most people in the study only played an instrument for a few years of their lives.
What made a difference, however, was whether people still played an instrument or only played in the past, with current amateur musicians showing the highest cognitive performance of the participants.
This makes sense as continuing to engage in cognitively stimulating activities such as playing an instrument should result in continued brain health benefits, while playing a tape recorder for three years in grade school may not have as much of an impact. on our cognitive performance later in life. But what about being a musician without playing an instrument?
Singing is a very popular musical activity as it allows participation in musical groups, such as choirs, without the need to learn a musical instrument. But does singing provide the same cognitive benefit as playing an instrument?
According to the study’s findings, singing can lead to better executive function but not memory, suggesting that playing an instrument has additional benefits for brain health.
Why singing would help us in our executive function is not clear and requires further investigation. However, singing has a strong social benefit when done in choirs and there is good evidence that engaging in social activity is good for our brain health.
The “Mozart Effect”
How about just listening to music? Does it also improve our cognition and potentially our brain health?
Many people may remember the famous “Mozart effect,” which was based on a study published in Nature in 1993 that showed that when students played Mozart, they scored higher on intelligence tests.
This led to an entire industry promising us that playing such music to ourselves or even our babies could lead to cognitive benefits, even though the evidence for the original study remains controversial to this day.
Unfortunately, the current study found no relationship between music listening and cognitive performance. Cognitive stimulation depends on being actively engaged in activities, so passively listening to music does not appear to provide any cognitive benefit.
Playing an instrument or singing seems to have benefits for our brain health as we age, according to the study. What has yet to be determined is whether this would also help prevent future cognitive decline or dementia.
The study doesn’t yet provide evidence for this, and it’s also unclear how the findings apply to the general population, as most people in the study were female, educated and well-off.
However, given the overall cognitive and social benefits of learning an instrument or singing in a choir, it may be worth engaging in such cognitive stimulation as we grow older. Our parents would be proud of us.
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