Musical Development of Elderly People

By Bruhn, Herbert | Psychomusicology, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Musical Development of Elderly People


Bruhn, Herbert, Psychomusicology


Creating and listening to music typically depends on hearing, flexibility of the voice, motor skills, and cognitive processing. Declines in these factors are not generally apparent prior to the sixth decade due to compensation by flexible information processing. Musical activities of elderly people (with a focus on Germany) are described, beginning with choir attendance, singing, and instrumental training. The survey indicates a great interest among elderly persons to initiate opportunities for making music by themselves; this suggests a new niche for professional music educators. Changes in the lives of professional musicians at the age of retirement are described. Music listening and music preferences are discussed, not only for normally aging people but also for aged persons in clinics and caregiving homes. The significance of psychological research about musical development for music therapy with elderly people is stressed.

Research into the development of musical ability has been an important theme in the psychology of music. Within the last decade, however, there has been a turn to research on the development of ability in music in adults and aged people. For a long time the opinion prevailed that musical ability develops mainly in infancy and childhood. It is still conjectured that "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." This paper addresses these issues within the context of practice and research, primarily in Germany.

Although lifelong development has been a central concept in developmental psychology for decades (Baltes & Schaie, 1973), in Germany it became a primary research focus with respect to the psychology of music in 1993 (Gembris, 1993). The present article concentrates on the developmental aspects of musical ability in elderly adults. The first part deals with age related changes in basic abilities. The second part concerns musical activities of elderly people. The last part concerns the motivation for playing and listening to music.

Basic Abilities

A survey of the literature on changes in musical ability in adults and aged is fraught with the difficulties that arise equally in research into the musical ability in the early years of life. Musical performance differs from individual to individual to a considerable degree (Gembris, 1998, p. 373). These differences grow with age. Most research results, therefore, must be interpreted with caution. They are mostly derived from cross-sectional statistical designs. Differences between persons in different age cohorts are interpreted as developmental gain. Real understanding can only stem from longitudinal studies that have not yet been conducted.

Yet another problem in research, especially concerning people in older age groups, derives from the flexibility of human capacities. The slow decay of musical ability over many years may remain unnoticed because deficits in perception and performance are compensated by enhanced attention and control (Maier, Ambuehl, & Schandry, 1994, p. 167).

Hearing

Figure 1 shows decay in the perception of sound intensity of age groups from 18 - 24 to 65 - 70 years. Within the youngest group already there exists a considerable difference between males and females. But not until the age of 50 years does it appear that men are harder of hearing than women of the same age. At this age the median difference is 20 dB, particularly in the high frequencies which are especially important in the perception of consonants in speech and high tones played by certain orchestral instruments such as the flute. This means high sounds have to be four times as intense in order to achieve the same loudness levels as low sounds.

The decay in the perception of intensity can often be compensated by suitable technical aids. But nevertheless, problems arise. Older people develop their individual taste for a frequency spectrum. Correcting the hearing deficits using a hearing aid changes spectral and temporal characteristics of the sound and alters its original perceptual characteristics. …

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