Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta now believe there is a link between musical training in childhood and mental acuity in old age.

To date there's been quite a bit of research exploring the cognitive benefits of musical activity and children but this is the first study to explore whether those benefits extend across a lifetime.

Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist in Emory's Department of Neurology, and cognitive psychologist Alicia MacKay, PhD, found that older individuals who spent a significant amount of time during their lives playing a musical instrument performed better on some cognitive tests than individuals who didn't play an instrument. The findings were published in the April journal Neuropsychology.

"Musical activity throughout life may serve as a challenging cognitive exercise, making your brain fitter and more capable of accommodating the challenges of aging," said Hanna-Pladdy in a press release. "Since studying an instrument requires years of practice and learning, it may create alternate connections in the brain that could compensate for cognitive declines as we age."

The high-level musicians who had studied the longest performed the best on the cognitive tests, followed by the low-level musicians and non-musicians. The most advanced musicians had statistically significant higher scores than the non-musicians on cognitive tests relating to visuo-spatial memory, naming objects and the brain's ability to adapt to new information.

Making Music Together

Other research continues to show many intellectual dividends for children who actively study music and play an instrument, rather than merely listening to it.

Here are some of the areas that are enhanced by formal musical instruction:

  • Math and motor skills
  • Language development
  • Reading ability
  • Creativity
  • Social adjustment
  • Problem solving

How to Bring Music to Your Life

If your child enjoys listening to music, lessons can be a natural extension of the fun. Max Morden, a professional musician and music teacher in Verona, NJ offers the following advice for making your family members more musical.

1. Choose an instrument. Familiarize your child with different instruments so she can decide what appeals. "If you have instruments at home, let her observe how they are played and what they sound like. Your child should have a hand in selecting her instrument," says Morden. "If you don't play an instrument, take your child to a school or professional concert so she can hear for herself." Or you can go online, "YouTube is a wonderful, online destination. I show my high school students video clips of great jazz performers like Miles Davis all the time. It can be incredibly inspiring for them."

Morden says 4th grade is an ideal time to start musical training given the practical considerations (size of the child compared to size of instrument, etc) but some children are ready earlier. "Second and third graders are probably too young," says Morden who picked up his primary instrument, the trumpet, as a 5th grader growing up in Michigan. "Physically, their hands and bodies may be too small to handle certain instruments. The saxophone, for example, can be awkward for a little person and a 7-year-old probably doesn't have the finger span to reach all of the holes in a clarinet." For younger children (kindergarten age and up) who are eager to begin playing, Morden suggests the piano or the violin.

2. Find a teacher. If your child's school has a music program, ask the director if he teaches privately or can recommend others who do. Quite often music teachers take on private students after school hours. Weekly lessons can cost anywhere from $20 to $75 depending on where the lesson takes place (coming to your home is generally more expensive) and the length of the lesson.

Having experience teaching children is as important as a teacher's professional training or musical credentials. Call parents of current or former students to get an idea about the teacher's style. Male students may prefer a male teacher but ultimately it's about finding a teacher whose personality works with your child's.

3. Rent first. Since many children are fickle when it comes to instruments, Morden recommends renting an instrument for a few months before deciding to purchase it. "Buying brass and woodwind instruments can be expensive but larger music shops often have reasonable rental packages," says Morden who has been teaching band instruments to children of all ages for 22 years.

4. Practice is essential. Morden recommends beginners practice 10 minutes a day, seven days a week. "Equate it with learning math problems," advises the father of two. "If you practice two plus two equals four every day pretty soon you don't have to think about it. It's the same with music. With enough practice you don't have to relearn all the time. Practice enables the child to process the music more quickly and get to the fun part faster!"

Even if your child doesn't become a musical prodigy, there are still big benefits to having a musical background. "Aside from the critical and analytical thinking skills that are honed by playing an instrument, learning about music enriches future experiences of listening to music, going to concerts and attending musical theater, operas and other shows. Music is the rare experience than can be enjoyed throughout life."

The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center at Emory University

Interview with Max Morden, music teacher (grades 3 through 12) and professional musician based in New Jersey