Can musical training benefit the aging brain?

Several research studies have recently shown that music training in childhood improves cognitive skills in children but can it also boost brain power later in life?


Example of interactive, music-based cognitive training cartoon.

A study published in the journal Psychological Science this past October found exciting evidence that preschoolers can improve their verbal intelligence after only 20 days of classroom instruction using interactive, music-based training cartoons. The study was conducted by Dr. Sylvain Moreno, leading scientist at the Centre for Brain Fitness at Baycrest, in collaboration with a number of other Canadian scientists.

The benefit was striking and consistent in 90 percent of the children who took the four-week learning program. The children exhibited intelligence improvements in vocabulary knowledge as well as increased accuracy and reaction time. It was additionally confirmed by brain imaging data that brain changes had taken place related to the training.

“Our data have confirmed a rapid transfer of cognitive (thinking) benefits in young children after only 20 days of training. The strength of this effect in almost all of the children was remarkable,” said Dr. Moreno.


Dr. Moreno discusses the development of computer cognitive training programs.

The findings of this study have exciting implications for creating and improving brain education and training programs for children of all ages, and potentially for older adults. This research is bringing us closer to understanding the brain mechanism responsible for improving cognition.

Practising chords and scales may pay off

A second research study suggests that all those hours of practising chords and scales in childhood may pay off decades later. The study, published by the American Psychological Association, found that older adults who had played an instrument during childhood may be reaping the benefits as they age.

In the study, seniors who had played a musical instrument as a child did better on cognitive tests related to memory and learning. It appears that the benefits are long-term.

The study results also indicate that the longer the musical training they received in childhood, the better the older adults did on the cognition tests. “This is important too as it suggests that the longer you practise something using a certain part of the brain, the stronger the connections in that part of the brain become and the longer they last,” adds Dr. Moreno.

“Another explanation is the (causal) domino effect. Since learning music improves cognition when you are young, it probably improves your intelligence at school, leading to a better job, positively affects your social network and ultimately improves your socio-economic status, which all affects your general health (including brain health) and well-being.”

Can older adults benefit from music training?

“I believe that older adults can benefit from music training and we are exploring this hypothesis at Baycrest,” says Dr. Moreno. “The causal effect seen in children with musical training could be reproduced in older adults although we are not sure how much or how well.”

Something for us to look at in the future is whether musical training can protect against Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

Sylvain Moreno will be a keynote speaker at the first annual Brain Power Conference being held at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto on May 3-4, 2012.

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