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Music's Effects on Cognitive Function of the Elderly

"Where there is life there is music. Where there is music, there is life."

Wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock
Source: Wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock

Whether the music is orchestral, rock, country, or jazz, most seniors like to listen to some kind of music. Music can soothe or energize, make us happy or sad, but the kind we like to hear does something that can be positively reinforcing or otherwise we would not listen to it. As my 80-year-old jazz trumpeter friend, Richard Phelps, recently said at his birthday party, "Where there is life there is music. Where there is music, there is life."

Relatively little research has been done on the effects of music on brain function in older people. But one study recently reported the effects in older adults of background music on brain processing speed and two kinds of memory (episodic and semantic). The subjects were not musicians and had an average age of 69 years.

The music test conditions were: 1) no music control, 2) white noise control, 3) a Mozart recording, and 4) a Mahler recording. All 65 subjects were tested in counter-balanced order in all four categories. The music was played at modest volume as background before and during performance of the cognitive tasks, a mental processing speed task, and the two memory tasks. The episodic memory task involved trying to recall a list of 15 words immediately after a two-minute study period. The semantic memory task involved word fluency in which subjects wrote as many words as they could think of beginning with three letters of the alphabet.

Here's what the researchers found:

  • Processing speed performance was faster while listening to Mozart than with the Mahler or white noise conditions. No improvement in the Mahler condition was seen over white noise or no music.
  • Episodic memory performance was better when listening to either type of music than while hearing white noise or no music. No difference was noted between the two types of music.
  • Semantic memory was better for both kinds of music than with white noise and better with Mozart than with no music.

Recognizing that emotions could be a relevant factor, the experimenters analyzed a mood questionnaire comparing the two music conditions with white noise. Mozart generated higher happiness indicators than did Mahler or white noise. Mahler was rated more sad than Mozart and comparable to white noise.

Thus, happy, but not sad, music correlated with increased processing speed. The researchers speculated that happy subjects were more around and alert.

Surprisingly, both happy and sad music enhanced both kinds of memory over the white noise or silence condition. But it is not clear if this observation is generally applicable.

The authors did mention without emphasis that the both kinds of music were instrumental and lacked loudness or lyrics that could have been distracting and thus impair memory. I think this point is substantial. When lyrics are present, the brain is dragged into trying to hear the words and thinking about their meaning. These thought processes would surely interfere with trying to memorize new information or recall previous learned material. Memory improvement also might not work with musicians, who are more likely to divert attention to the details of music structure rather than just casual listening.

A point not considered at all is personal preference for a certain types of music. There are people who don't like classical music, and the data in this study could have been made "noisy" if enough of the 65 people disliked classical music and were actually distracted by it. In other words, the effects noted in this study might have been magnified if the subjects were allowed to hear their preferred music.

My take-home lesson was actually formed over five decades ago when I listed to jazz records while plowing my way through memorizing a veterinary medical curriculum. Then, I thought that the benefit was stress reduction (veterinary school is stressful and happy jazz certainly reduces stress). Now perhaps I see that frequent listening to music that was pleasurable for me might have actually helped my memory capability.

Anyway, now that I am in the elderly category, I see there is still reason to listen to the music I like. Music can be therapy for old age.

“People haven't always been there for me but music always has.”

—Taylor Swift

"Memory Medic's" latest book is "Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain. Memory Is the Canary in Your Brain's Coal Mine." It is available in inexpensive e-book form at Amazon or in all formats at


Bottiroli, Sara et al. (2014). The cognitive effects of listening to background music on older adults: processing speed improves with upbeat music, while memory seems to benefit from both upbeat and downbeat music. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. Oct. 15. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2014.00284.