Benefits of being a lifelong musician

May 11, 2011 2:54:54 PM PDT
Memorizing scores, learning fingering for the guitar or the piano can stress a musician's brain.

But does it make a musician's memory better especially if they start learning as kids?

A new study has some answers. To remember the sequence of the thousands of notes in a piece of music needs a special type of mind.

One group of scientists compared the memory of musicians who began training at age nine or less to some non-musicians. The Journal Public Library of Science One says, musicians remember better.

Amy Gruszewski is conducting the Kittay House Community Chorus. Amy, at 38 years old has had music a part of her life since she was five.

Gruszewski thinks her years of music practice have helped her memory. Phone numbers, for example, stuck in her head.

"Because of the rhythm of it, 'da da da da da da da', it's a very human, very natural rhythm," she said.

Maybe more natural for musicians, especially those starting young. The study found that studying music beginning at age nine or younger led to better memory in middle age.

"They were doing something extra. But, if you do more things with your brain, you have a better shot at keeping your thinking ability healthy as you grow older," said Dr. Amy Sanders from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Middle aged musical people were compared to non-musical ones in a small study of only 37 people.

The tests where musicians scored better were memory tests for songs and sounds, working memory such as remembering phone numbers, and being able to hear speech better in a noisy room.

We asked some of the chorus with early music training about how music affects memory. "Times that i've been places I would associate them with different tunes," said Dr. Laura Singer-Magdoff, a psychotherapist who is still practicing at the age of 94.

Singer and pianist Kathryn Grant worked for the FBI. Remembering numbers came easy to her.

"Every move we made was a code. To enter any area you had to have a code, you had to have a number you had to know it, you know," said Grant.

Maybe knowing music made knowing those numbers easier. But could taking up music in middle age protect your memory?

"Whether starting to play an instrument in middle age would have the same effect is something we don't know yet and should find out," said Dr. Sanders.

The study authors had the same question. Dr. Sanders adds that studies show brain stimulating leisure activity has positive effects on the brain, and that it's even been linked to a lower risk of dementia.