7 Ways Learning Music Boosts Brain Power in Older Adults

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When you love music, it shows. You play with expression, practice more than your instructor requires, and take opportunities to make music for others.

People of all ages benefit from learning music. It provides new social situations, creates avenues for creative expression, breaks stress and tension, and builds our minds. In fact, the cognitive benefits of music give adults a healthy and creative way to age well.

How Stress Impacts Your Brain

Learning to play or sing music actually changes your brain. During a music session, your brain releases dopamine, which increases emotional and cognitive functioning. A rush of dopamine motivates, changes mood, increases learning and focusing abilities, and has positive effects on memory.

All these things help minimize poor sleep, spotty memory, lack of motivation, and other negative effects of aging. 

Our bodies also contain a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol gives your body the fight or flight response in stressful situations, often by taking energy away from other body systems and concentrating to get you out of the problem safely. Too much cortisol can create issues when there isn’t a danger to flee from, however. It could weaken your immune system, for example, which makes you more susceptible to illness.

If stress is taking a toll on you, learning music can reduce its effects. Just listening to music reduces cortisol levels, and lowered stress means you sleep, perform, relax, and think more effectively.

How Learning Music Benefits for Older Adults

woman learning music

Executives are the people who preside over the different departments in businesses, and the executive function in the brain has a similar role. It controls aspects like making decisions, regulating emotions, problem-solving, and memory. Learning and listening to music gives your brain’s executive function — and all your cognitive abilities — a boost. This is a big statement to make, but science has proven it can produce positive benefits.

Many aging adults experience some form of memory loss, from mild forms to symptoms of bigger problems like Alzheimer’s or dementia. When your brain becomes involved in music, whether learning, playing, or listening to it, you are strengthening your executive and subjective memory functions.

One study showed interaction with music through music therapy improved the functions impacted in early-stage dementia. The individuals studied experienced enhanced lifestyles because the therapy improved their sleep, memory, and overall mood, as well as lowered their stress levels. 

How does this work? Learning musical skills uses parts of your brain in ways that nothing else does. In other words, there are boundaries inside your head that only music can cross!

These unique brain interactions help older adults keep the cognitive parts of their brain elastic and healthy. That’s because music is like a cognitive workout: Just as stretching your body’s muscles keeps them from becoming injured, using your brain’s cognitive functions keeps them from losing their power.

There’s another term for this: neural plasticity.

Think of your brain as something with flexible, plastic qualities. The more you use it to learn new things, the more you can shape it and help it make new connections. If you don’t use your brain in these ways and instead let it stiffen, it slows down and won’t do everything you want it to do.

Music keeps parts of the brain in that flexible state — even in your older years.

7 Cognitive Benefits of Learning Music for Older Adults

student learning music

1. Increased concentration

Learning music requires concentration because the music keeps flowing, like a river, and you have to keep up with it. A workout on the piano or violin helps you concentrate in other areas of your life, like when reading a book or listening to your children or grandchildren on the phone.

2. Increased reflective functions

Music is more than an art. It makes you think emotionally, as the mood of a piece can affect your personal mood. Music exercises the ability to empathize. If you’re playing a sad love song on the flute, then you can relate to the forlorn lover, for example. Other reflective functions include thinking abstractly, interpreting the past, and planning for the future.

3. Increased self-esteem

How do you think about yourself? You build confidence when you learn musical skills. You realize you can perform for others and make them happier. You learn that you are talented. Learning music motivates you to do, be, and live better.

4. Increased self-control

You wouldn’t sound good if you didn’t have self-control when learning music. You need to know when to pause, hold notes, and become louder or softer. Practicing self-control in music increases your ability to practice it in other aspects, like controlling road rage, passing up junk food, and going to sleep at regular times.

5. Decreased depression and anxiety

Thinking too much about specific problems can lead to anxiety. Being unable to let them go or compartmentalize them can negatively affect your whole life. Music helps you work through anxiety and reduces your stress levels, which can help you deal with it in healthy ways. Depression, too, can be reversed when you train your brain with musical abilities. Learning music affects your overall mood and lessens the stressors that create depression.

6. Strengthened reading skills

Some of the neural pathways that are used while learning music are shared with the pathways used when reading. This means that learning music can also help you with reading skills, such as interpreting words, remembering the twists and turns, understanding the characters, and predicting the outcomes of the plots.

7. Strengthened speech abilities

Learning music helps your brain process sounds, as well, which is also related to making sounds through speech. Repeated training in this way can improve auditory function and decrease instances of hearing loss problems in adults. 

Science-Backed Reasons to Start Learning Music

There are so many cognitive benefits to learning music, which means you may want to start a new musical chapter in your life. The Sloan School of Music offers private lessons for voice and many types of instruments. We even provide virtual lessons!

We’d love to help you along your musical journey, so contact us today to get started!

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