A Preliminary Investigation of Executive and Motor Functions of Beginning Older Adult Instrumentalists

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Poster presented at International Symposium on Performance Science, Reykjavik, Iceland.



Aging is associated with a decrease in performance on a number of motor abilities, including reaction time, movement time, and ability to adapt to external forces. Despite the ubiquity of these changes, little is known about how to moderate these effects. Finger tapping is a skill frequently assessed as a measure of fine motor skill. Age-related declines have been demonstrated for a variety of tapping and key-pressing tasks. However, older adults who had studied music as a child performed significantly better on tapping tasks, both unimanual and bimanual, than older adults who did not have instrumental training as a child. These behavioral differences are supported at the neurological level by evidence of neurological differences between adult musicians and non-musicians. Older adults have rich and varied musical lives. The importance of music in the lives of senior citizens includes keeping the mind sharp, creating a sense of accomplishment, improving aerobic capacity, fun and enjoyment, relieving stress, and increasing activity level. In addition, some older adults return to play instruments they had not played since adolescence, choose to learn new genres of music, and participate in multiple ensembles.


Despite the strong presence of music in the lives of older adults, it is only recently that investigators have begun to document emotional, neurological, and behavioral benefits of musical study for older adults. The purpose of this investigation was to examine changes in fine motor skills and cognitive flexibility by community-dwelling adults over the age of 60, who participated in 8-12 weeks of private piano lessons.


Participants (n=9) were community-dwelling adults age 60 and older, in the southeast United States. They completed an interview about their music experiences while growing up. In the first study session, they completed a working memory test (digit span forward), a cognitive flexibility test (Trail Making A and B), a music aptitude assessment (Gordon Advanced Measures of Audiation), and a series of 12 fine motor skill tasks (Bruininks Motor Ability Test for adults 40+ years). Next, participants attended 8-12 weeks of private piano lessons using a commercially available lesson book for older adults and supplementary materials prepared by the researcher. Participants agreed to practice about three hours a week at home, and the amount of practice time was recorded in weekly practice logs. In the final study session, participants repeated the pretest assessments.


This study is currently in the data analysis stage. Descriptive and non-parametric tests will compare pretest scores to post-intervention scores on working memory, cognitive flexibility, music aptitude, and fine motor skills. Individual scores will also be examined in relation to age norms.


Results will be situated in previous literature and recommendations will be made for more extensive studies than this pilot study. Previous literature is available examining the impact of piano lessons for older adults on a variety of working memory tests and emotional tests, but none of these studies have included a standardized fine motor skill assessment.


International Symposium on Performance Science


Reykjavik, Iceland

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