The relation between instrumental musical activity and cognitive aging

Neuropsychology. 2011 May;25(3):378-86. doi: 10.1037/a0021895.


Objective: Intensive repetitive musical practice can lead to bilateral cortical reorganization. However, whether musical sensorimotor and cognitive abilities transfer to nonmusical cognitive abilities that are maintained throughout the life span is unclear. In an attempt to identify modifiable lifestyle factors that may potentially enhance successful aging, we evaluated the association between musical instrumental participation and cognitive aging.

Method: Seventy older healthy adults (ages 60-83) varying in musical activity completed a comprehensive neuropsychological battery. The groups (nonmusicians, low and high activity musicians) were matched on age, education, history of physical exercise, while musicians were matched on age of instrumental acquisition and formal years of musical training. Musicians were classified in the low (1-9 years) or high (>10 years) activity group based on years of musical experience throughout their life span.

Results: The results of this preliminary study revealed that participants with at least 10 years of musical experience (high activity musicians) had better performance in nonverbal memory (η2 = .106), naming (η2 = .103), and executive processes (η2 = .131) in advanced age relative to nonmusicians. Several regression analyses evaluated how years of musical activity, age of acquisition, type of musical training, and other variables predicted cognitive performance.

Conclusions: These correlational results suggest a strong predictive effect of high musical activity throughout the life span on preserved cognitive functioning in advanced age. A discussion of how musical participation may enhance cognitive aging is provided along with other alternative explanations.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Cognition*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory*
  • Middle Aged
  • Music / psychology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests