Playing music in childhood linked to a sharper mind in later life

By Dr Judith Okely

Taking up a musical instrument in childhood and adolescence is associated with improved thinking skills in older age, research shows.

People with more experience of playing a musical instrument showed more lifetime improvement on a test of cognitive ability than those with less or no experience.

Importantly, this was the case even when accounting for a person’s socio-economic status, years of education, childhood cognitive ability and health status in older age.

The test of cognitive ability was taken at ages 11 and 70, and included questions requiring verbal reasoning, spatial awareness, and numerical analysis.

Out of the 366 study participants, 117 reported some experience of playing a musical instrument – mostly during childhood and adolescence. The most commonly played instrument was the piano, but many other instruments were played too, such as accordion, bagpipes, guitar and violin.

The findings provide some of the first evidence that playing an instrument is associated with small, but detectable, cognitive benefits over the life-course.

Researchers say the results cannot prove musical training boosts cognitive ability because factors not included in the study – such as other activities or parental influence – could have played their part.

The research team, however, intends to build upon these findings as it investigates which factors might contribute to healthy brain ageing.

Emeritus Professor Ian Deary, formerly Director of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said: “We have to emphasise that the association we found between instrument-playing and lifetime cognitive improvement was small, and that we cannot prove that the former caused the latter.

“However, as we and others search for the many small effects that might contribute toward some people’s brains ageing more healthily than others, these results are worth following up.”

Study participants were part of the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 – a group of individuals from Edinburgh and the Lothians, born in 1936, who took part in the Scottish Mental Survey of 1947.

The individuals have been tested on a number of physical and mental functions as they grow older, including retaking the standardised cognitive ability test each took as an 11 year old.

Cohort members who had retaken the test aged 70 were quizzed about their musical experiences, by researchers keen to find out if playing an instrument is related to healthy ageing.

The team used statistical models to look for associations between a person’s having played a musical instrument and changes in their thinking skills between ages 11 and 70.

The study, funded by Age UK and the Economic and Social Research Council, is published in the journal Psychological Science. It was a collaboration involving researchers in psychology and music.

Dr Judith Okely, now a Lecturer in Psychology at Napier University, said: “These results add to the evidence that activities that are mentally challenging, such as learning to play a musical instrument, might be associated with better thinking skills.”

Dr Katie Overy, of the University of Edinburgh’s Reid School of Music, said: “Music has so much to offer as a fun, social activity – it is exciting to find that learning to play a musical instrument may also contribute to healthy cognitive ageing.”

To read full scientific paper, please click here.