Music Interventions in Older Adults Enhance Cerebellar Grey Matter and Auditory Working Memory

As we age, brain plasticity tends to diminish, making it more difficult to learn new things. This is accompanied by a loss of the gray matter in which our neurons reside, leading to brain atrophyTrusted Source and further cognitive degeneration.

A new study has found that intensive music playing and active listening can slow the loss of gray matter in the brain, prolonging its plasticity.

The randomized, controlled, six-month trial conducted by researchers at the University of Geneva (UNIGE), HES-SO Geneva, and EPFL Lausanne in Switzerland resulted in a significant increase in gray matter volume in four brain areas. These areas are linked to high-level cognitive function, and include the cerebellum.

The type of memory most immediately affected by a loss of plasticity is “working memory.” This is the form of memory that allows you to recall information long enough to perform an action. An example would be realizing you were out of apples and being able to remember this long enough to jot it down on a grocery list.

In the study, the participants’ working memory improved on cognitive tests by an average of 6%. The researchers attribute this to an increase in the individual’s cerebellum, a region associated with working memory.

The study is published in Neuroimage: Reports.

The trial involved 132 participants aged 62 to 78 years old. None had six months or more of musical training during their lifetimes. All were right-handed people who were in good physical and mental health, retired, and were not dependent on hearing aids. The participants were divided into two equal groups.

The first group received one-hour piano lessons each week with the expectation that its members would practice five days a week for 30 minutes.

The remaining participants practiced music awareness in active listening sessions. They were taught basic music concepts, including learning to identify individual instruments. More advanced instruction was provided for recognizing musical styles and examples of different musical eras and learning to perceive the emotion in musical examples.

At the end of the six months, all participants were tested for cognitive function. They also received Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans that allowed the study authors to observe gray matter changes.

While there have been previous studies regarding music and brain plasticity, this is the first that assesses results through neuroimaging as well as behavioral metrics. It is also a large study designed to be reproducible by others for verification, and it was long enough to deliver benefits.

The study suggests that multi-modal activities such as music that give multiple brain regions a workout are most likely to benefit plasticity, especially those that involve sensorimotor and physical domains.


Damien Marie, Cécile A.H. Müller, Eckart Altenmüller, Dimitri Van De Ville, et al. (2023). Music interventions in 132 healthy older adults enhance cerebellar grey matter and auditory working memory, despite general brain atrophy. Neuroimage: Reports. Volume 3, Issue 2, June 2023, 100166. DOI: 

Geneva Musical Minds Lab, Geneva School of Health Sciences, University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland (HES-SO). Can music help train our brains to delay cognitive decline?. MedicalNewsToday. Retrieved April 25, 2023 from 

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