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.

Rebecca J. Warren works with older adults as a board-certified music therapist with Chautauqua Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. She also holds a bachelor’s in psychology. She 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, picking up an instrument may do much more.

“Music utilizes a variety of regions in the brain, both left brain and right brain,” Warren said. “It builds pathways that might not otherwise be formed.”

She doesn’t view music making as a hobby for only the young, but asserts 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.

Terri Kasprzak, board-certified music therapist, works at The McGuire Group’s Northgate Health Care Facility in North Tonawanda. She said that although making music can’t prevent dementia, it can help delay cognitive decline because it helps the brain make new neural connections.

“It’s a challenge for the brain and whenever you challenge it, you strengthen it,” Kasprzak said.

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.

“There’s also a sense of mindfulness and being present,” Kasprzak said. “You’re stopping and slowing everything down inside and it’s a good tool for reducing stress.”

De-stressing is also good for the brain.

Ellen M. Cool, board-certified music therapist and licensed creative arts therapist in private practice in Tonawanda, would disagree with the old adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

“The newest research is showing that aging brains are still plastic,” Cool said. “Adults can learn skills. Few activities give your brain as much of a workout as playing an instrument.

“It’s an extremely complex task that employs many sensory areas. As you do it more and more, it strengthens your cognitive skills.”

Cool said that although it’s easier for children to pick up an instrument, older adults can learn as well.

Jennifer M. Koch, executive director of Community Music Buffalo, said that playing or singing songs from one’s youth can help bring back important memories and stimulate the brain.

It’s more mentally engaging than a passive activity like watching television.

Learning to make music also helps keep brains busy with making and reaching goals.

“For people who are recently retired and spent their lives doing something where with measurable outcomes, learning an instrument gives them a challenge where they can measure their success,” Koch said. “That’s a really great feeling.”

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).”