Brain Health

Playing an Instrument May Help Preserve Brain Health

If you’ve played a musical instrument, you probably know from experience that the talent requires a multitude of brain skills. From memory and processing speed to attention and visual and auditory processing, the cognitive skills needed to memorize, read, and play music require the brain to performing at its peak.

And now a new study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry has found that some musical abilities may actually help keep the brain healthy throughout adulthood.

The Research

The University of Exeter study analyzed data from the decade-long PROTECT study, a dementia-focused research study being run by the university and King College London, in partnership with the National Health Service.  Using a subset of people aged 40 and older, the authors of the new study tracked the cognitive effects of playing different types of instruments or choral singing, as well lifelong exposure to music and musical experience.

The majority of study participants had played for 5 years or fewer, with just over 75% receiving 2 to 5 years of instruction. During their active musical years, the participants had practiced for approximately 2 to 3 hours a week (or less).

It makes sense that researchers would look at the physiological mechanisms through which playing an instrument or singing might support cognitive health. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of music for brain health.

“Practicing music an impact the brain in many ways, including increasing the speed of nerve impulses by inducing the formation of myelin, which wraps around nerve cell processes, and by increasing synapses—the connections between nerve cells,” explains Dr. Larry Sherman, author of “Every Brain Needs Music: The Neuroscience of Making and Listening to Music.” “It may also actually drive the generation of new nerve cells.”

The Findings

So what exactly did the researchers find?

• They observed no link between simply listening to music passively and cognitive health.

• Although they found a link between singing in a choir and cognitive health, the researchers couldn’t determine if the singing itself caused the benefits or it the results were simply due to participating in a social activity.

• Playing an instrument throughout one’s life can promote cognitive health. In particular, adults who played an instrument were more likely to have stronger executive function and working memory.

• People who played the piano through adulthood were the most likely to receive the greatest benefit. (Although woodwinds and brass were also found to be cognitively beneficial.)

• People who played percussion, the guitar, or bowed instruments showed no association with better cognition.

• Higher level of overall musical ability was linked to stronger working memory.

• Stronger cognitive health was tied to continued playing of an instrument as one aged.

Why would playing certain instruments—rather than just listening to music—produce bigger benefits? It’s likely due to the fact that the additional benefit of participating requires the musician to use more areas of the brain. In addition, actively engaging in musical activities through adulthood may protect cognitive reserve—the brain’s ability to improvise by pulling in skills and capacities to solve problems and cope with challenges.


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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