How Music Helps Keep Brains Sharp

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

It may not be the Fountain of Youth, but making music may enhance cognitive ability as the body ages.

“If you learn something new, like a language or music, you show new synapse connections made,” said Daniel King, a geriatrician with University Rochester Medical Center.

Melinda Kurowski, board-certified music therapist at Pieters Family Life Center in Rochester, listed “memory enhancement and maintaining/increasing cognitive skills” among the long-term goals of providing music therapy to residents.

While working crossword puzzles or playing trivia games may engage some parts of the brain, making music may do much more.

“Playing an instrument or singing helps us be who we are,” Kurowski said. “Music is processed globally in the brain. The whole brain is essentially activated. It uses many, many areas: motor skills, emotion, hearing and vision.”

She doesn’t view music making as a hobby for only the young, but says that anyone at any age can learn an instrument with the right support. She lets her clients’ preference help guide their choice and can make adaptations as needed.

Although making music can’t prevent dementia, it can help delay cognitive decline because it helps the brain make new neural connections.

Among her clients, Kurowski works with patients with Parkinson’s disease. She has found that engaging in music therapy before the disease has progressed far offers more benefits in helping patients than starting later.

Since many people who play instruments take lessons, perhaps play in a group or perform for others, the activity can improve social connections, which is important for staying mentally sharp.

If physical limitations make playing seem out of reach, Kurwoski said that adapting the instrument or the manner in which they’re played can help most people play.

“Adaptive lessons might be a great way to approach the instrument and get some outside support to play,” she said.

With the popularity of televised talent shows, YouTube stars and recording artists, it’s easy to focus on perfection; however, it’s not only about the performance.

“We have this polished end result in mind with singing and playing instruments,” Kurowski said. “The regular population is afraid to use their voice or play because the songs on the radio are auto tuned and polished. I would like to encourage people to not feel like you can’t sing or play if you’re not perfect. Don’t be worried about the product.”

By relaxing and enjoying the journey, budding musicians can de-stress, which is also good for the brain.

So what is a music therapist?

It’s not simply strolling the halls of a nursing home strumming a guitar for a sing-along.

Rebecca J. Warren, board-certified music therapist with Chautauqua Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, explains:

“Music therapy is the use of music to accomplish individualized goals by a credentialed professional within a therapeutic relationship. In the US, a music therapist completes an undergraduate degree from an accredited university (according to American Music Therapy Association guidelines, including 1,200 hours of clinical work. After completing a six-month internship, you can sit for a board-certification exam created by CBMT ( to obtain the title board-certified music therapist (MT-BC).”