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Cognition and perception, Education

Learning a musical instrument may confer lifelong cognitive benefits

But study can't conclusively prove cause-and-effect.

12 September 2022

By Emma Young

Musical training has long been linked to better general cognitive functioning. Studies investigating everything from the cognitive skills of adult musicians vs non-musicians to the effects of instrument lessons on children’s cognition has come out in support of the idea.

However, relatively few studies have explored whether the benefits last — if, as a child, you have piano lessons, for example, does this have any impact on your cognitive abilities in later life? The results of a new longitudinal study, in Psychological Science, which tested the same people at the ages of 11 and 70, suggest that it does. Cognitive benefits of musical training seem to be evident even decades later.

Judith A. Okely at the University of Edinburgh and her team analysed data on 366 participants in the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 study. At the ages of about 11 and also 70, these people completed the same test of general cognitive ability. The test required them to decode cyphers, do arithmetic, classify words, and perform spatial tasks, for example. At 82, these participants reported on their lifetime musical experience.

The team looked at the differences between the cognitive test scores at 11 and 70. On average, there was a net increase — the participants generally did better on the test at the age of 70, compared with 11.

Of the 366 participants, 117 reported musical instrument experience. Most of these had reached a beginner or intermediate level. For this group, the team also looked at the number of years of formal musical training and the number of years of regular practice (as well as hours of practice per week during those years).

Okely and her colleagues found that even when they took into account other factors that might influence the results (childhood and adult socioeconomic status, years of education and history of disease), people who had more musical instrument experience tended to show greater gains in general cognitive ability by age 70. “These findings suggest that playing a musical instrument is associated with long-term cognitive advantage,” the researchers write.

A strength of this study — in terms of its general applicability — is that it looked at a sample of the general population, rather than professional musicians vs people with no musical experience, say. Indeed, most of the participants with musical experience reported having played just one instrument, having had only two to five years of formal lessons, up to five years of practice and two to three hours of practice per week during those years, and to have reached only a beginner level. So the level of musical training wasn’t that really that high. Also, the median age for starting to play a musical instrument was 10 and the median age for stopping was 18. And yet, more than 50 years later, the team found evidence of a persistent cognitive benefit.

Given that most of the participants’ musical experience happened during childhood, this might suggest that the main positive impacts on cognitive ability happen then. But, as the team points out, it’s also been suggested that musical training could contribute to a person’s ‘cognitive reserve’ — their buffer against decline in cognitive ability in older age. Perhaps, then, musical training in childhood acts as an immediate extra boost to cognitive abilities, and also protects against later declines.

The study cannot conclusively show that musical training itself drove the cognitive advantage that the team found in this group (it’s possible that an underlying factor facilitated both learning to play an instrument and greater improvements in cognitive abilities). But given other work suggesting that the multi-sensory challenge of musical training leads to broader cognitive benefits while certain other activities (such as art and drama training) do not, it does seem at least plausible. I, for one, am taking it as another reason to keep on encouraging my kids to regularly practice their instruments.