The cognitive benefits of background music on seniors

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“If you want to firm up your body, head to the gym. If you want to exercise your brain, listen to music.”


Music is so ingrained in our lifestyles, but have you ever wondered when we started recognizing or understanding music. If you say, “It started right from the womb, then, you’re right.” You get the ability to understand music with no prior knowledge. It’s one of the things you receive as an infant, and you never quite lose it until you go to the grave.

Music affects the way we react or respond to certain situations. On the surface level, we know that music can affect our performance. According to the Mozart effect, music with a fast tempo/major mode creates a positive mood or higher degrees of physiological activation. In comparison, music with a slow tempo/minor mode creates a negative mood or lower degrees of physiological activation.

Background music, on the other hand, is “music played while the listener’s primary attention is focused on another activity.” Background music can affect the cognitive functions of the elderly. It can enhance the performance of episodic memory, semantic memory, and verbal and visual processing speed.

A recent study carried out by Sara Bottiroli et al. shows that background music can affect seniors’ cognitive functions. In this study, there were 65 participants with an average age of 69. Each participant was subject to four music test scenarios:

  1. Mozart music recording
  2. Mahler music recording
  3. White noise recording
  4. No noise recording

 This study was conducted by Sara and her team to test mental processing speed, episodic memory, and semantic memory. Episodic memory entailed recalling a list of 15 words after two minutes while the semantic memory test involved writing as many words beginning with three letters of the alphabet.

It was interesting to discover that:

  1. Episodic memory performance was better in the Mozart and Mahler piece than in the white noise or no noise recording.
  2. Semantic memory performance was better with both the Mozart and Mahler piece and better with Mozart than no music.
  3. Mental processing speed was faster while listening to the Mozart piece as opposed to the others.

In this study, the researchers had speculated that happy subjects are more alert. However, it was surprising to see that both happy and sad music enhanced both kinds of memory. Happy music increases processing speed. What is even more impressive is seniors with Alzheimer/dementia may not remember the names of their loved ones, but they can remember songs that they listened to when they were teenagers. Music helps with memory.

Music plays a massive role in enhancing neuroplasticity. Santiago Ramon (1904) was one of the first few people to come up with the hypothesis that your brain could change as a result of learning to play music. He was right! It wasn’t restricted to playing music, but the brain could also change while listening to music. It shouldn’t surprise you that the brain forms new neuro-pathways while music is played. There are so many instances where music is used to boost productivity and inspire movement.

Audun Myskja’s TED talk highlights dementia care. He conducted a study amongst seniors to see how music could affect seniors’ daily activities. One of the case studies he gave was that of an older male who had Alzheimer’s. He would get super agitated each time a caregiver came to give him a bath. As soon as Audun executed the music intervention, the older male was more receptive to getting a bath from his caregivers. Music, in this case, was used as a tool to reduce stress and anxiety. It can also reduce heart rates, lower blood pressure, and decrease stress hormones.

It can even slow down cognitive decline in the elderly. Another study shows that seniors who had played musical instruments at an earlier age were less likely to have Alzheimer’s/Dementia. Over the years, it has been noted that musical training has improved the resiliency of the brain. Music promotes healthy aging and enhances the quality of life.


These studies show that people one has Alzheimer’s or Dementia can can connect to their loved ones through music.

In summary, music enhances neuroplasticity in the brain – Music helps with memory and improves productivity. It can reduce stress and anxiety in seniors and slow cognitive decline. It enhances the quality of life and promotes healthy aging.


We’ll end with this:

“If you want to firm up your body, head to the gym.

If you want to exercise your brain, listen to music.

Music is medicine for the mind and food to the soul.”


Here at GYC, we take care of our seniors like our own, and we are committed to creating conducive environments for them to thrive. We’ve found that musical activities can enhance human connections between our seniors and caregivers. Though we are apart, we can still create digital interactions.

We urge you to share a song with your senior loved ones to let them know you were thinking about them.


Sources cited
The cognitive effects of listening to background music on older adults: processing speed improves with upbeat music, while memory seems to benefit from both upbeat and downbeat music | Sara Bottiroli et al. – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4197792/
Music’s Effects on Cognitive Function of the Elderly | Psychology Today
Music-based caregiving – a new method for dementia and elderly care | Audun Myskja – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfEBrYrGs18
From Perception to Pleasure: How Music Changes the Brain | Dr. Robert Zatorre – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVX8j5s53Os
How music can heal our brain and heart | Kathleen M. Howland – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NlY4yCsGKXU



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