Singing and playing an instrument can boost brainpower and memory in later life, study finds

29 January 2024, 14:15 | Updated: 29 January 2024, 15:04

Playing piano can help boost your memory in later life, study finds.
Playing piano can help boost your memory in later life, study finds. Picture: Getty

By Siena Linton

An active musical life could be the secret to a healthier brain and improved memory, according to new research.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

Playing a musical instrument or singing in a choir is key to a better-functioning brain in later life, scientists at the University of Exeter have found.

Continuing to play music into later life could even help to reduce the risk of cognitive decline, and stave off the effects of ageing on healthy brains.

The results are especially significant in those who have maintained a life-long relationship with music. The study also recommends that its findings be applied to music education policy, so that future generations can benefit as much as possible from a strong musical foundation.

Read more: Inspiring moment 92-year-old with dementia remembers Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata on piano

Dad with dementia plays beautiful Bach

As part of their long-term Protect-UK study on healthy brains, ageing and dementia, researchers at Exeter University gathered data from over 1,500 adults on their musical habits and abilities.

They were then asked to complete a series of tasks to test their memory, and skills in planning, focusing, and multi-tasking – known together as executive function.

89 percent of the study’s participants had played a musical instrument before, and roughly half of that number continue to play now. Meanwhile, 71 percent had participated in group singing, and 15 percent had individual vocal training.

The results of the study showed that people who had played a musical instrument performed ‘significantly better’ in the tasks measuring memory and executive function than those who hadn’t.

Pianists and brass players performed especially well in the memory tasks, while woodwind players and singers did better overall in the executive function task.

Read more: Scientists find taking up piano lessons at older age could delay dementia onset

Ballerina with Alzheimer’s listens to Swan Lake, and it all comes back

“Being musical could be a way of harnessing the brain’s agility and resilience, known as cognitive reserve,” says Anne Corbett, professor of dementia research at the University of Exeter, and one of the study’s authors.

“Although more research is needed to investigate this relationship, our findings indicate that promoting musical education would be a valuable part of public health initiatives to promote a protective lifestyle for brain health, as would encouraging older adults to return to music in later life.”

The link between musical activity and brain function is well-proven, with previous studies highlighting the benefits of playing music when it comes to children’s development, memory, ageing, and overall wellbeing.

Read more: 10 incredible benefits of listening to classical music

One study conducted in 2022 proved that just six months of piano training could help improve the memory function of adults with no musical training.

Previous studies have also shown that children who learn music from a young age have more ‘connected’ brains than their non-musician counterparts.

So whether you’re a first-time learner, or needed some extra motivation to pick your instrument back up, here’s all the encouragement you need...