How Playing Musical Instruments Can Have Cognitive Benefits

Nov 11, 2022

“From strumming a guitar next to a campfire to entertaining guests with a piano piece at a formal dinner, being able to play a musical instrument is unquestionably rewarding. Yet, evidence suggests that the rewards go far beyond the elation of performing well in front of others – those who play instruments have often been found to perform better on cognitive tests too.”

This was the opening statement in a recent article in The Economist, the prestigious weekly newspaper read by many of the world’s most formidable movers and shakers.

At Everything Retirement, we’re passionate about the importance of cultivating cognitive health – especially among those of our followers heading towards or already in retirement – and our ongoing research tells us that enhanced cognition is well-known to be linked to a range of positive life outcomes as we age.

According to The Economist, new research published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that the benefits of playing musical instruments remain for decades. The article went on to observe:

“Studies comparing the mental abilities of musicians and non-musicians often show that musical training is related to small, but significant, cognitive benefits even when confounding factors, such as socioeconomic status, are accounted for. Findings from experimental studies with children have also lent support to the idea that musical training might cause an improvement in cognitive ability. Indeed, there is evidence that just two years of such training enhances cognition.”

This initial insight suggested a more relevant question: does playing a musical instrument prevent dementia? We decided to investigate and discovered the following, published last year by the Alzheimer’s Association. We ask you to forgive the excessively academic tone of the findings, which we reproduce verbatim:

“In EPIC-Norfolk, data were available from 5693 participants (745 musicians) on music playing, cognition, and all covariables. Classification of musicianship by frequency of playing demonstrated key differences in socio-demographic factors. Musicians outperformed non-musicians in cognition generally. Compared to non-musicians, frequent musicians had 80% higher odds of being in the top cognitive decile (OR 1.80 [95%CI 1.19-2.73]), whilst musicians playing at any frequency had 29% higher odds (95% CI 1.03-1.62), compared to non-musicians.”

The Economist article wound up by saying:

  • Overall, the researchers found that a significant positive relationship existed between playing an instrument and change in cognitive ability over time.
  • More specifically, the more years and more hours of practice with an instrument that a person had, the more likely they were to show a positive cognitive change over the course of their life.
  • The effect was small, but it remained significant even when the findings were adjusted to account for factors like years of education and socioeconomic status.

Final Opinion

It’s not clear why playing a musical instrument has the cognitive effects described above, but apparently it does. The link is there.

Concluded The Economist: “The researchers theorise that driving people to regularly use a mix of focused attention, coordination, auditory-motor skills and memory results in advantageous cognitive changes.”

That’s music to our ears!



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