Psychology and music education professors collaborate on cognitive research project

Psychology professor Rebecca MacAulay and music education professor Philip Edelman have partnered on an innovative cognitive research project that teaches older adults to read and play music.

The Maine Understanding Sensory Integration and Cognition (MUSIC) Project recently wrapped up pilot programs with two groups of older adults in Brewer. Participants in the project, many of whom had never had music lessons, spent 12 weeks learning to read and play music on the recorder.

MUSIC partnered with the Heritage and Somerset Place independent living facilities for low-income adults in Brewer, recruiting older adults who were interested in learning to play music in a social setting.

The project stems from MacAulay’s research into understanding and improving cognitive development in older adults, and Edelman’s work and research with the New Horizons music programs for seniors. Through her research, MacAulay has found that one of the greatest challenges in treating cognitive aging processes is to find activities that older adults enjoy doing. Edelman’s work with the Roeland Park New Horizons Band showed that older adults seem to enjoy learning and making music together.

“Treatment-wise, we tell them a lot of things they probably know already they should be doing that they’re not doing, so I’m very excited about positive replacement behaviors,” says MacAulay.

“Music is something, I think, that we all universally just gravitate toward. Here’s this activity that’s shown to have cognitive benefits in children as they develop and within older adults who have had music lessons. So, could this be an activity for older adults, who haven’t been exposed to music, that they could receive some cognitive benefit from it?”

MacAulay and Edelman, who both finished their first year at UMaine, met at a social gathering for incoming professors last year. After MacAulay explained her research, Edelman mentioned his love of teaching music to older adults and his previous research on the topic, and immediately they began brainstorming what would become the MUSIC Project.

Within a semester, the pilot programs were launched.

MacAulay trained a team of graduate and undergraduate students in neuropsychological testing who then assisted MacAulay in clinical interviews with the participants.

Edelman designed the program’s instruction model and facilitated one of the pilot programs, which met Wednesdays for an hour.

Nathan Sprangers, an undergraduate music education student, was trained by Edelman to facilitate the other pilot program that met Fridays. Sprangers, a nontraditional student with over 10 years of teaching experience in public school and summer camp settings, didn’t quite know what to expect from the participants.

“I’d never taught people who didn’t know anything about music before. They’re not just learning the instrument, they’re learning how to read music, and read rhythms, and count,” he said.

All were surprised at the progress made in just 12 weeks.

“For somebody that’s never played an instrument, I think I’m doing really good,” boasted one participant during a visit to Edelman’s classes.

While Edelman and Sprangers were able to mitigate cognitive challenges through pacing and repetition, the physical challenges of playing the recorder proved more difficult. According to the participants, arthritis and carpal tunnel often made it hard to get the appropriate finger placement on the instrument.

Despite the challenges, the participants returned week after week for the group camaraderie, as much as for the music. The participants encouraged each other and even met after hours to practice as a group.

“It gives us something to look forward to,” said one of the participants.

“And a sense of accomplishment. Well, at times, anyway.”

MacAulay and Edelman hope to offer the MUSIC Project to other aging communities in the fall and spring semesters. They will also be bringing on more undergraduate psychology and music majors to assist in the research.

One long-term goal of the project is to create a peer-based training model, in which “graduates” of the program deliver instruction to other older adults throughout the state.

Another long-term goal is to create a music instruction manual specifically for older adults that accounts for the cognitive and physical demands of older learners. One piece of advice Edelman received from his participants was to include more tunes that they know.

As for the participants, they’ve promised to continue practicing on their recorders, in order to improve as musicians.

“One of them said to me, ‘See you next fall,’” said Sprangers after his final class. “And that wasn’t someone I expected to hear that from. So that was nice.”

Contact: Alan Berry, 207.581.1955