News, Culture & Society

University of Pittsburgh study finds making music can help those with dementia and cognitive issues

Making music hits right note with dementia sufferers: Singing or playing an instrument has significant impact on cognitive skills, study shows

  • American study found making music had a small impact on cognitive function 
  • University of Pittsburgh research say it helps with mild impairment or dementia 
  • Nine separate studies involved almost 500 people between 2010 and 2021 

Whether they are singing in a choir, tapping a triangle or playing the xylophone – making music can help those with mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh analysed nine separate studies involving almost 500 people between 2010 and 2021 and found that making music, which has a different effect than listening to it, has a small but significant impact on cognitive function. 

This was based on tasks like remembering a list of items, naming the year and month or doing sums.

In the studies, people sang or played musical instruments along to songs from their childhood or hits from the 1920s and 1930s. 

A University of Pittsburgh study has found that making music can help those with dementia and minor cognitive impairment. Pictured: Music lifts the spirit of Leah (left) who has dementia

Jennie Dorris, lead author published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, said: ‘Music… can help with keeping the brain active because it involves so many different skills.

She added: ‘When someone is in the early stages of dementia, or has mild cognitive impairment which can often leave them struggling to find the right words, music can be a really good way to still express themselves without words.’

Older people taking part in the studies analysed were asked to play instruments ranging from drums and xylophones to triangles and wind chimes, or even to make simple ones themselves, such as playing a drinking straw like a wind instrument.

In one study older people slapped their knees to clapped their hands to accompany music from the 1930s, while in another they formed a choir and sang with a group of young people and a pianist.

The studies, which asked people to take part in music sessions lasting 30 minutes to two hours, carried out one to five times a week, were done too differently to be analysed together for their effect on older people’s wellbeing.

But a single study of 42 people, given song sheets to sing along to eight of their favourite songs, found their moods were improved afterwards.

Meanwhile the experiment where people played improvised instruments like drinking straws, involving 35 people, indicated that their quality of life improved afterwards.

The analysis, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, concludes that musical activities could delay memory decline, and people do not need to be musically trained to benefit.