Listening To Music Promotes Brain Plasticity And Cognitive Reserve

Progressive cognitive decline is linked to normal aging. However, can our brains be trained to slow this process down? Practicing and listening to music can slow cognitive decline in healthy elderly by promoting the growth of grey matter, according to a study.

Over 100 retirees who had never played music were observed by a team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), HES-SO Geneva, and EPFL. For six months, they took piano lessons and a music awareness course. These findings present fresh opportunities for promoting healthy aging. The study was published in NeuroImage: Reports. The human brain changes throughout the course of a lifetime.

As a result of our surroundings and experiences, such as when we gain new abilities or recover from the effects of a stroke, our brain’s morphology and connections change. This ”brain plasticity”, though, declines with age. Additionally, the grey matter in the brain, which houses our priceless neurons, is lost. ”Brain atrophy” is the term used to describe this.

Music practice and active listening could prevent working memory decline

A cognitive deterioration gradually manifests. One of the cognitive functions that are most negatively affected is working memory, which is at the centre of many cognitive activities. The process by which we temporarily store and manipulate information to accomplish a goal, such as memorizing a phone number long enough to jot it down or translating a sentence from a foreign language, is known as working memory.

According to a study conducted by the UNIGE, HES-SO Geneva, and EPFL, active listening and music practice can halt the loss of working memory. Such exercises encouraged brain plasticity and were linked to an increase in the amount of grey matter. Working memory benefits have also been seen. The 132 healthy retirees in this study ranged in age from 62 to 78. They had to have given up music lessons for more than six months to participate, which was one of the requirements.

Practicing music vs. listening to music

”We wanted people whose brains did not yet show any traces of plasticity linked to musical learning. Indeed, even a brief learning experience during one’s life can leave imprints on the brain, which would have biased our results”, explains Damien Marie, first author of the study, a research associate at the CIBM Centre for Biomedical Imaging, the Faculty of Medicine, and the Interfaculty Centre for Affective Sciences (CISA) of UNIGE, as well as at the Geneva School of Health Sciences. Regardless of whether they were there to play an instrument or not, the participants were split into two groups at random.

The second group received active listening instruction that concentrated on identifying instruments and analysing musical elements in a variety of musical genres. The lectures took an hour. Each participant in each group was assigned to do 30 minutes of homework each day.

Increase in grey matter in four brain regions

”After six months, we found common effects for both interventions. Neuroimaging revealed an increase in grey matter in four brain regions involved in high-level cognitive functioning in all participants, including cerebellum areas involved in working memory. Their performance increased by 6% and this result was directly correlated to the plasticity of the cerebellum,” says Clara James, last author of the study, a privat-docent at the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences of UNIGE, and full professor at the Geneva School of Health Sciences.

The quantity of training done each day and the number of classes taken during the intervention, according to the researchers, all had a beneficial effect on how much performance improved.

Musical interventions prevent aging in specific regions

The researchers did discover a distinction between the two groups, though. The right primary auditory cortex, a crucial area for processing sound, had steady grey matter volume in the pianists but dropped in the active listening group. ”In addition, a global brain pattern of atrophy was present in all participants. Therefore, we cannot conclude that musical interventions rejuvenate the brain. They only prevent aging in specific regions,” says Damien Marie. These findings demonstrate the positive effects of music practice and listening on cognitive reserve.

These enjoyable and accessible interventions, according to the study’s authors, ought to be a top focus for healthy aging policies. The team’s next task is to assess these therapies’ potential in those who have moderate cognitive impairment, a stage between normal aging and dementia.

Story Source:
Materials provided by Université de Genève. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:
Damien Marie, Cécile A.H. Müller, Eckart Altenmüller, Dimitri Van De Ville, Kristin Jünemann, Daniel S. Scholz, Tillmann H.C. Krüger, Florian Worschech, Matthias Kliegel, Christopher Sinke, Clara E. James. Music interventions in 132 healthy older adults enhance cerebellar grey matter and auditory working memory, despite general brain atrophy. Neuroimage: Reports, 2023; 3 (2): 100166 DOI: 10.1016/j.ynirp.2023.100166

Cite This Page:
Université de Genève. “How music can prevent cognitive decline.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 April 2023. <>.

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