Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Public Health



First Advisor

Dr. John F. Watkins


The proportion of older adults living with cognitive impairments is increasing rapidly. This shift will likely increase mortality rates, reduce perceived quality of life, and cause economic burden to patients and health care systems. Currently evidence of highly effective and noninvasive interventions that prevent or slow the onset of cognitive impairment are limited. This study aims to better understand what drives cognitive aging variability among musicians versus non-musicians. Music playing has been shown to improve brain and cognitive functions by engaging networks of brain areas, simultaneously involving cortical mechanisms associated with executive, high-level cognitive and motor functions, and multiple sensory systems. Literature suggests strong correlations between cognition and music ability. However, studies in the past have not concretely operationalized music training. Here we test the general hypothesis that music training improves neural mechanisms associated with core cognitive functions (e.g. working-memory and attention).

A multi-source study was designed to control level of music involvement and genre by examining professional, classically trained orchestral musicians, establishing cognitive and neuropsychological profiles in an effort to better understand the potential for music training to protect older adults from cognitive decline. Specific hypotheses involved attentional inhibition theory and increased ability of musicians to perform attention and working memory tasks. Twenty-nine professional musicians were recruited who completed five neuropsychological exams. The scalp electrophysiological signals from 14 channels were recorded wirelessly while each musician performed a modified delayed match-to-sample task, imagination of music playing, and resting states. Musicians completed neuropsychological screening (MoCA) a music and life span questionnaire as well.

Musicians tested above normative ranges in cognitive ability indicated through MoCA. Musicians’ scores were compared with average or normative scores of participants at similar ages in previous studies using the same measures and current musicians performed significantly faster and more accurately on four of five neuropsychological measures. Regression and ANCOVA showed strong positive correlations between theta oscillation in bilateral frontal sites (F3, F4) and both number of years of private music lessons and number of hours of music practice. Correlations between EEG recordings taken during music imagination exercise at posterior (01, 02) sites and the number of years of private music lessons participants took, the age participant started to take music lessons and the number of years they played their musical instrument were found. Current new findings reveal that professional musician’s cognitive scores and neural activity are associated with superior cognitive ability via enhancement of neural mechanisms of current target material and inhibition of distractions.

Music training is apromising noninvasive method to control cognitive challenge, which merits further research to determine how it can be used as a beneficial cognitive training method for aging individuals. Future studies should examine neuro-cognitive differences between professional musicians and individuals with lower levels of music involvement to examine dose effects of music or the amount of music needed to protect aging adults from cognitive decline.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)