‘Where words fail, music speaks’

As the music starts playing, Angela Randal lifts her maracas and tells the room to “start tapping your feet along with me!” Angela begins to sing, backed by the synchronized tapping of a dozen feet.

Randall, a registered psychotherapist and music therapist, wanders among the seated residents at The Village of Tansley Woods, calling out their names. Together the residents of the long-term care facility in Burlington, Ont., join her in belting out a familiar tune from their youth. “When it’s springtime in the Rockies, I’m coming back to you,” they sing.

Randall is part of a movement to train seniors in music to help with their cognition.

Over the past two decades, there has been a significant expansion in research demonstrating the multifaceted effects of music on the brain, influencing areas such as emotions, cognition, memory and behaviour. For seniors, research shows that learning to play an instrument in later life can help slow cognitive decline.

As people age, gray matter in the brain declines, affecting vital mental processes, memory, emotions and movement. Studying music has the opposite effect. Music involves pitch, timbre (sound quality), rhythm and dynamics, and is based on relationships between one note and the next. This high level of complexity means the brain must do a lot of computing to make sense of music.

“Music is particularly powerful because it’s an activity that involves multiple cognitive functions,” says Damien Marie, a neuroscientist at the University of Geneva.

Marie and his team led first-of-its-kind research that showed learning to play an instrument in later life can help slow cognitive decline. The team pioneered the use of neuroimaging to study the effects of music of aging brains and tracked 150 healthy older adults who received 12 months of one-hour weekly music training.

The results, published in a series of reports over the past two years, show that people who are learning new instruments are stimulating production of grey matter in key brain areas. After one year of music lessons, enhanced grey matter production in the cerebellum – involved in working memory – correlated with improved performance in working memory tasks.

You can’t become young, but there are developmental effects that can be activated by studying music.

“You can’t become young,” but there are developmental effects that can be activated by studying music, says Marie. People who have practiced music in their younger years also tend to delay the onset of dementia, he says.

Christine Naguib, a music therapist who works in a nursing home in Waterloo, Ont., says she can see music making a difference in the lives of her patients. One of her patients is an 87-year-old woman with severe Parkinson’s disease (PD) who was a musician in her younger years. The woman continues to play the piano, despite now being in a wheelchair. Music has kept her mind strong, even though at least 75 per cent of PD patients who survive for more than 10 years will develop dementia.

Naguib says she believes the lifelong practice of music has helped her cognitive function. “She’s sharp and has quite the personality. She even corrects me when I’m off beat,” she says.

Music therapy on its own can’t prevent dementia, but it can enhance cognitive abilities. The brain is mouldable – changing, adapting and reorganizing itself throughout an individual’s life. As people learn, the brain modifies its structure and function, leading to behavioural changes.

Studies indicate that learning to play an instrument or taking singing lessons not only enhances musical abilities, but also has auditory benefits and improves other skills, says Carla Mucignat, a professor at the University of Padova with a PhD in neuroscience.

Music can shape the development of children’s brains, says Mucignat, and ignites all areas of child development, including intellectual, social-emotional, motor, language and literacy. It helps the body and the mind work together.

This principle remains relevant in older adults as well, says Mucignat. “It’s never too late to start anything,” she says.

Marie, the Swiss neuroscientist, emphasizes the importance of prioritizing long-term learning, suggesting that discovering a passion and dedicating yourself to it consistently is key to reaping both behavioural and cerebral rewards.

In Burlington, Randall strums her guitar strings. The residents take up rainsticks. They tilt them back and forth, reminiscing about the sounds they bring to mind: the patter of spring rain, the rumble of a lawnmower, the chirping of insects. They’re socializing, laughing and singing.

A few minutes later, while Randall is gathering her supplies, one of the residents calls out to her. “Thank you for coming,” she says. “See you next week.”

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Madison Stringer


Madison Stringer has a master’s degree in neuroscience from the University of Geneva and writes about brain and health research.

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