Age-Related Changes Affecting the Learning of Music Performance Skills for Older Adults

By Reifinger, James L., Jr. | Psychomusicology, July 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Age-Related Changes Affecting the Learning of Music Performance Skills for Older Adults


Reifinger, James L., Jr., Psychomusicology


In everyday situations people tend to be surprised when adults talk about their instrumental music lessons. Why might this be the case? Learning to play an instrument is often viewed as an endeavor that commences in childhood and continues through earlier adulthood for those who persevere, but musical development can occur at any time during the life span. Furthermore, once acquired, musical skills can be maintained and improved during old age. Opportunities to learn or improve music performance skills are pursued by adults of all ages and ability levels, from beginners to advanced performers. In a survey of 275 audience members attending a musical performance, Bowles (1991) found that 67% stated they would consider taking a music course, and the highest level of interest was for performance courses. Requested levels of study indicated that 72% were at the beginner level, 22% at the intermediate level, and 6% at the advanced level. Certain life events such as retirement, divorce, or the death of a spouse or relative have been cited as the catalyst for a decision to initiate or resume active music study, based on self-reports of older amateur pianists ages 53 to 87 years (Taylor, 2011). Piano was the most commonly played instrument in a small sample of older adults (Hanna-Pladdy & MacKay, 2011). Frequently cited reasons for taking piano lessons in adulthood in Cooper's (2001) sample were development of personal skills (55%) and personal pleasure (45%), with 78% reporting that they enjoyed practicing.

Pioneers in the adult music education movement, Ernst and Emmons (1992) founded their instrumental music program in 1991 for adults 50 years of age and older. Called the New Horizons Band, this program was designed to provide an avenue for older adults who wanted to be actively involved in music making. Presently over 200 New Horizons organizations are listed on the New Horizons International Music Association website and many of these groups now open their membership to adults of any age ("New Horizons Groups," 2016). Although it may not be possible to develop the technical skills of an élite performer later in life, older adults can learn to perform music at a level that results in a tremendous personal pleasure and a sense of accomplishment (Ernst & Emmons, 1992). A study by Gembris (as cited in Gembris, 2012) found that an amateur musician's self-reported personal best performance on an instrument can occur anytime throughout one's life. Among the senior citizens (Mage * 71 years) interviewed in his study, 30% indicated that they currently reached 90% to 100% of their previous best instrumental performance level.

Though the pursuit of musical learning is common at all age levels, much of the research that examines the developmental process in music learning is generally limited to the period of infancy through early adulthood (Prickett, 2003). Likewise, music teacher preparation programs focus almost exclusively on how to teach music to children and young adults. Coffman (2002) pointed out that the body of research on music education with adults is only beginning to emerge. Psychomusicology directed attention to the topic in 2002 with an entire special volume on the Psychology of Music and Aging (Volume 18). While advanced aging is sometimes associated with overt changes that can hinder learning, such as diminished acuity in hearing and vision, and increased orthopedic challenges, music performance skills include covert processes that may also change with age and affect learning. With practice, improvements in performance skills result from specific adaptations that are physiological, psychomotor, and cognitive in nature (Lehmann & Ericsson, 1997). Age-related changes in perceptual, cognitive, and motor functioning that are known to occur may have an effect on the process of learning music performance skills in adulthood, although, as Halpern and Bartlett (2010) pointed out, little research has examined these changes in relation to music learning. …

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