Danny Sepler


My grandmother bought an iPhone last year. She was ecstatic. For months (if not years), my sister and I had described to her in excruciating detail all the things a smartphone can do. Netflix, social media, Google Docs, video chats, et cetera, et cetera. But really, we often leave phone calls unanswered. She never said so, but that texting is easier for us was more than a small factor in her decision.

Within a few days, she returned the phone. She explained that she could never use enough of its features to make the purchase worthwhile. Rather than attempt to learn the phone’s ins and outs (and, thus, rather than risk failure), she preferred to get her money back. After all, she could only get a full refund up to a week after purchase.

This is hardly an unusual story, and it concerns more than phones. Enter Shaun Roy, a music instructor at the Guitar Center on Archer Road. “I’ve heard countless excuses,” Shaun says, for why his older students are discouraged from continuing their music lessons. “If I had to think of a favorite one, it’s gotta be: ‘I’m more of a right-brained thinker than a left-brained one.’” He laughs, “Oh, so your creativity is what’s getting in the way?”

These stories are worth investigating. I ask for us to rethink brain plasticity, its connection to aging, and how music might keep our brains nimble.

It’s a cliche that the art of learning is reserved for the young. Traditional research in neurology doesn’t help. It has been shown that our brains shrink with time. We lose neural connections as we put more candles on our birthday cakes, and our cerebral blood flow diminishes accordingly. However, I suggest that we might be overestimating this process’s impact.

So, what does getting older look like, from a cranial perspective? As any pre-med student may describe, our brains are composed of grey matter. Grey matter is a dense interwoven system of cell bodies and tissue that facilitates the movement of electrochemical signals. When we get older, the volume of grey matter lessens in the brain, and cavities of cerebrospinal fluids fill its place. Sometimes, a brain might lose more than 40% of its dopamine neurons, and then suffer from weakened stimulation between cells. Movement-related symptoms arise. We call this degenerative disease Parkinson’s.

Gray matter in a 27 year-old brain (left) and an 87 year-old one (right)

In other cases, the shrinking of neurons that control voluntary muscles can cause stiff muscles, twitching, and eventual difficulty in common tasks such as speaking and swallowing. We refer to the disease that results as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

And so, we have been laden with daunting geriatric science figures for decades. Neural cells die, our functions decrease, and it is all a part of life. However, recent discoveries suggest that these symptoms do not affect the brain as much as we previously conceived.  It is not uncommon for stimulated brains to learn new fundamental skills well into old age.

Leo Tolstoy learned to ride a bike when he was 87. Robert Frost wrote poems in his 90s. Queen Victoria began learning Hindustani when she was 84.

As one might expect, music is no exception. The celebrated composer Giuseppe Verdi wrote operas into his 90s. In September of 2014, jazz singer Tony Bennett collaborated with Lady Gaga to release Cheek To Cheek, a record that would go on this past year to win a Grammy Award. No spring chicken, Bennett is 89 years old. On a community scale, at age 102, Frank Iacono is the concertmaster of the Providence Civic Orchestra of Senior Citizens in Rhode Island. Iacono reflects, “[playing the violin] keeps my mind active, and it gives me a lot of pleasure.” Iacono is consistently referred to as extremely sharp for his age.

Why does music have this effect? When in doubt, we turn to neurology.

A 2003 Harvard Study found that adult professional musicians have more grey matter than average — and that’s not the only difference. Something about the process of learning music, and then practicing and repeating its intricacies, causes the brains of professional musicians to actually be structured differently than nonmusicians.

Alison Baibag, a PhD in gerontology, has an answer for why this is. Gerontology, by the way, is the study of social, biological, and psychological aspects of aging. Baibag claims that music requires a “wide array of brain regions and cognitive functions to work together simultaneously, in both right and left hemispheres of the brain.

There are few activities that blend the areas of the brain in such quick succession: the (logical) nature of rhythms, the (instinctive) urge to place a pause a location that maximizes tension, and the (social) queues flying between the members of an orchestra without a word exchanged.

One may recall that Parkinson’s and ALS are caused by low amounts of certain types of grey matter. Perhaps early investment in activities that maximize grey matter can slow, or even prevent, these degenerative diseases later in life.

All the stories above have to do with lifelong musicians. Or, at least musicians who learned the essentials when they were young. What hope do nonmusicians have?

As of right now, information is sparse. Studies suggest that molding older brains to learn music is hard, but not impossible. The lack of research in the field, and the scarcity of programs dedicated to it, make finding an answer difficult to do. Impeding this research is also the recurring stigma that only younger populations can learn to play music.

Perhaps it’s time to turn away from traditional, rote methods of music education. Remember Shaun, the Guitar Center instructor from earlier? He explains his own teaching philosophy. “I could give you all the advice and/or material you need, but you’re going to have some sort of resentment. Scales,” he laughs, “now that’s my favorite form of torture!” He tells me that what gets the most response from his students is when they take charge of their educations. “You choose the song, the technique, and we’ll come back and do that.”

He also gives me one final piece of advice, and this one is a little more intuitive. “At Guitar Center,” he says, “we do an open jam, where we back them.” Backing, by the way, means to accompany another musician. “Seeing a lot of teacher’s students — seeing them play, and seeing them enjoy it — that’s what really gets them excited. It’s not all about the technical stuff. When they finally play with someone, or play it live, it just comes back to feeling [the music.]” That’s where the excitement comes into the picture.

Music also finds its place in academia. Brenda Hanna-Pladdy is an assistant professor of neurology at Emory. She claims, “[music is] meant to be a model for cognitive stimulation, and how cognitively stimulating activities can change your brain.” Hanna-Pladdy studies how learning instruments, such as piano, affect various populations at the neurological scale. She studies all sorts of patients: young and old, those experienced with music, and those not so much.

Frank Iacono, on his 102nd birthday

I can’t help but remember Tolstoy, and how he learned to ride a bike at the tender age of 87. If Tolstoy can learn such a stimulating activity at 87, and music is an activity that is cognitively stimulating (to quote Hanna-Pladdy), I assert that her research is not impossible. Improbable? Maybe. But not impossible.

I assert that more pressure on research in this area might yield results we never dreamed were possible.

I assert that our brain’s plasticity doesn’t deteriorate to the level that we think it does.

I assert (and I believe) that my grandmother can still learn how to use a smartphone.


This Psychology Today Article About What Happens To Your Brain When You Age, With Tolstoy Example

This National Institute of Aging Article About What Happens To Your Brain When You Age

This National Geographic Article About How Learning Music Impacts The Brain

This Neuroscience Journal Article On Brain Structure Diffs B/w Musicians and Nonmusicians

Tony Bennett’s Cheek To Cheek Wikipedia

Rolling Stone’s Coverage of Last Year’s Grammy Winners

This CNN Article About Iacono and Hanna-Pladdy