- A recent study involved over 350 people who took intelligence tests at age 11 and age 70.
- The study looked at the influence of playing an instrument, controlled for other factors that might affect changes in cognitive ability.
- Playing an instrument was related to a small but reliable increase in cognitive ability over the lifespan.
There is a lot of interest in finding ways to help people get smarter and more effective at what they do in life. That is one reason why brain training apps continue to be popular despite evidence that suggests they do not increase general intelligence.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any activities that can influence overall cognitive ability. Indeed, a study by Judith Okely, Kative Overy, and Ian Deary published in the September 2022 issue of Psychological Science suggests that learning to play a musical instrument may help (at least in the long-term).
These researchers analyzed data from a longitudinal study that followed a group of individuals who grew up in Scotland and were born in 1936. They were given several different kinds of tests and surveys over the course of their lives. Of particular interest, these participants did a test of cognitive ability at the age of 11 and again at the age of 70. At the age of 82, surviving members of this group were also asked about their experience learning to play a musical instrument over the course of their lives.
Their focus was on the 366 participants who took the intelligence tests at the ages of 11 and 70 and answered the questions about playing a musical instrument. These tests of cognitive ability looked at many different aspects of intelligent behavior.
The study excluded people who still played their instrument(s) regularly at the age of 82 to avoid biasing the results strongly toward people who were in good physical and mental condition at that age and who might have other special characteristics that kept them playing an instrument that long.
To do this analysis properly, the authors also used other data that had been collected in this study to address other factors that might lead to changes in intelligence such as diseases like heart disease, stroke, dementia, and high blood pressure, occupation, sex, end education level. The aim was to filter out as many other factors as possible.
In addition, the authors treated experience with a musical instrument on a continuum rather than just a Yes/No binary. The questionnaire about musical experience asked about the number of instruments played, years of experience, years of practice, and hours per week of practice. This way, the researchers could look at whether more experience with an instrument had a bigger impact on cognitive ability than less experience.
The analysis suggests that there is a small but reliable influence of playing a musical instrument on increases in cognitive ability over the lifespan. Experience playing an instrument led to a little over a 1% increase in performance on tests of cognitive ability on average. While that may not seem like much, people have many experiences in their lives, and most don’t lead to any reliable change in overall cognitive ability.
These findings do not explain why playing an instrument might have this effect on ability. One facet that may matter is that it helps to teach people a full cycle of how engagement and practice lead to improvement. When you engage in structured and deliberate practice with an instrument, you improve. This lesson may transfer to other things people learn, which (over the long term) could lead to improvements in overall cognitive performance. Teasing apart the specific factors that lead to improvement would require much more fine-grained research.
Okely, J.A., Overy, K., & Deary, I.J. (2022). Experience of playing a musical instrument and lifetime change in general cognitive ability: Evidence from the Lothian birth cohort 1936. Psychological Science, 33(9), 1495-1508.