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ECU Music Education professor Jennifer Bugos, left, works with student Patricia Griffith. Bugos is investigating the benefits of music instruction for the aging. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

Music strikes chord with older learners

By Karen Shugart

Ann Flake wanted to learn how to play the piano that sat unused in her living room, left behind by a grown daughter. She’d had enough knowledge of music to sing along at church, but little more.

Three months later, Flake is set to perform “Danny Boy” at a May 23 recital for students participating in Dr. Jennifer Bugos’ study of how music instruction can prevent age-related cognitive decline. The recital is scheduled for 3 p.m. at the A.J. Fletcher Music Center.

“This course goes so quickly,” said Flake, 67, a retired radiology technologist, as she paused from a Tuesday morning practice session. “It’s mind-boggling.”

Mind-boggling may be one thing Bugos hoped the classes would be. As a doctoral student at the University of Florida, she witnessed the beneficial effect of music on her grandparents. Now an associate professor of music education at East Carolina University, Bugos is working to measure how music instruction, theory and performance can affect aging.

For three semesters, she has taught music appreciation, piano instruction and percussion ensemble classes to men and women ages 60 to 85. Participants have fewer than three years of formal training.

“Some people ask, ‘How can I learn this? I’m already 85. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,’” Bugos said. “That adage is not true. Everybody has the capacity to learn at any age.

“Certainly, ‘neurons that fire together wire together,’” she continued, citing a psychology axiom often used to describe the idea that synapses are strengthened the more often neurons “talk” to each other.

So far, the study’s outcome looks promising. Though it isn’t yet over, Bugos said, early indicators suggest that the courses have helped participants. “Generally, we’re noticing enhanced cognitive abilities in many areas, some of which are associated with Alzheimer’s Disease,” she said.

Musical study’s beneficial effects on older adults has been recognized and reflected in instruction programs around the country, but many programs assume some sort of existing knowledge on the student’s part. That leaves out many seniors who never had the opportunity to study an instrument, Bugos said.

Her classes were designed to be quick-paced tutorials that accommodate students who couldn’t read a note. They didn’t even have to have touched a keyboard or xylophone mallet. The students did, however, commit to almost four hours of cognitive assessments before training and more than two-and-a-half hours afterward.

Seventy students studied music appreciation, while 60 students each took piano or percussion instruction. Fine motor coordination has been studied in the piano group; in the percussion group, gross motor coordination.

“I think it really does help with your thinking ability,” said Stu Rosenstein, 61, of Greenville. He signed up to learn more about the theory behind the classical music he loves. After the course is over, he plans to continue his studies.

Musical knowledge can also help students’ bond with friends and family, Bugos said.
“The other day I had a student come by who said, ‘I just played for my great aunt who’s in a nursing home who used to play piano. She was delighted that I played her “Happy Birthday,”’” Bugos said. “I had another one play for her grandkids.”

Working with seniors differs from teaching more traditional-aged students, she said. “Older adults bring this excitement and energy,” Bugos said. “They bring prior experience to the table. They have their own particular preferences. They have their own interests. They’re very exciting to work with.”

The study’s $115,206 grant from the Retirement Research Foundation expires in August, but Bugos hopes to keep the classes going. Ultimately, she’d like to have programs in Greenville and towns across the country.

“People are interested in continuing,” she said. “I’m getting new calls every day from people who would like to participate.”  

For more information, contact Bugos at 252-328-5721 or

This story appeared originally in the April 30, 2010 issue of Pieces of Eight. An archived version of that issue is available at