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How Active Music Listening Can Make Our Brains Bigger

Actively listening to music increases older adults' cerebellar gray matter.

Key points

  • People lose gray matter with age. Older adults' memory deficits are linked to brain atrophy and shrinkage.
  • Music has the power to preserve older adults' working memory by enhancing gray matter volume.
  • Active music listening increases older adults' cerebellar gray matter and improves working memory.
Bruce Mars/Pexels
Source: Bruce Mars/Pexels

As we age, our brains lose some of their volume. Age-related gray matter loss is typically associated with cognitive decline and impaired memory functions. Older adults are at a higher risk for brain atrophy (i.e., shrinkage) and usually lose some of their working memory capacity due to thinning gray matter.

Gray matter thinning doesn't occur uniformly throughout the whole brain; some areas tend to thin more and shrink faster as we get older. By age 70, most older adults will experience some brain shrinkage in memory-related areas. However, those known as "super-agers" tend to lose less gray matter volume and often have well-preserved memory functions throughout their 70s and beyond.

What conditions support less brain shrinkage and preserve cognition in later adulthood? Evidence-based research has established that many factors—from genetics and personality traits to lifestyle choices and daily habits—can have neuroprotective benefits. Accumulating evidence suggests that music can offset the progressive decline of memory functions due to age-related brain atrophy.

Music Interventions Enhance Gray Matter Volume in Certain Brain Areas

A new fMRI study on the neuroscience-based benefits of music interventions in 132 healthy older adults (aged 62 to 78) found that learning to play an instrument or taking music awareness classes that cultivate "active listening" for six months increases gray matter volume in specific brain regions and improves working memory. These findings (Marie et al., 2023) were recently published in Neuroimage: Reports.

Source: SciePro / Shutterstock
Cerebellum (Latin: "little brain") in orange. Cerebellar means "relating to the cerebellum." The human cerebellum has two hemispheres subdivided into ten lobules (I-X).
Source: SciePro / Shutterstock

As seen in the neuroimages below, first author Damien Marie and coauthors found that music interventions enhance gray matter volume in a few cerebral brain areas typically associated with high-level cognitive functions and specific regions of the left and right cerebellar hemispheres. Music interventions also improved the cerebellum's neuroplasticity.

Older adults in both the "musical instrument playing" and "active music listening" groups benefited from six months of training. Participants didn't have to practice playing an instrument to enhance cerebellar brain volume and boost memory performance; actively listening to music had similar effects.

Cultivating Musicality Beefs Up Older Adults' Cerebellar Gray Matter

Of all the music-driven brain changes observed in this functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, increased gray matter volume in lobules VIII of the cerebellum's left and right hemispheres was most robustly linked to working memory improvements.

As the authors explain, "The longitudinal structure-behavior relationship we report at the level of the cerebellum and the working memory is in accordance with reviews of neuroimaging studies revealing that the inferior cerebellar lobules VIII are involved in working memory."'

Marie et al.'s latest (2023) findings on how music interventions enhance cerebellar gray matter volume and improve working memory in older adults align with another recently published transcranial direct current stimulation study (Almeida et al., 2023), which found that tDCS cerebellum stimulation boosts older adults' episodic memory.

Source: Marie et al., 2023 / Neuroimage: Reports (CC BY 4.0)
Red and yellow highlights where gray matter volume increased over six months in 132 older adults following music interventions.
Source: Marie et al., 2023 / Neuroimage: Reports (CC BY 4.0)

Non-Pharmacological Interventions Can Offset Age-Related Cognitive Decline

Numerous peer-reviewed studies have shown that non-pharmacological interventions such as tDCS, aerobic exercise, weightlifting, playing an instrument, and actively listening to music are promising approaches to offsetting age-related cognitive decline.

In their paper's conclusion, Damien Marie and coauthors sum up the real-world significance of practical music awareness interventions that teach older adults active listening techniques. "In this context, musical culture/active listening may be a promising low-cost ecological, behavioral group intervention, simpler than piano or other instrumental interventions," the authors write.

In an April 2023 news release, the authors express their belief that "playful and accessible interventions" such as active music listening can help to promote healthy aging and should be incorporated into public health policy.

Future studies by this research team will investigate the potential for music interventions to help older adults with mild cognitive impairment lower their risk of developing dementia.


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 (First available online: March 23, 2023) DOI: 10.1016/j.ynirp.2023.100166

Jorge Almeida, Ana R. Martins, Lénia Amaral, Daniela Valério, Qasim Bukhari, Guilherme Schu, Joana Nogueira, Mónica Spínola, Ghazaleh Soleimani, Filipe Fernandes, Ana R. Silva, Felipe Fregni, Marcel Simis, Mário Simões & André Peres. "The Cerebellum Is Causally Involved in Episodic Memory Under Aging." GeroScience (First published: February 07, 2023) DOI: 10.1007/s11357-023-00738-0

Xavier Guell & Jeremy Schmahmann. "Cerebellar Functional Anatomy: a Didactic Summary Based on Human fMRI Evidence." The Cerebellum (First published: November 09, 2019) DOI: 10.1007/s12311-019-01083-9n

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