Music intervention pilot study

Assessing teaching methods of group marimba classes designed to train spatial skills of older adults experiencing changes in cognition


  • Juleen Rodakowski University of Pittsburgh
  • Jennie L. Dorris University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, United States Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
  • Diana J. McLaughlin Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
  • Dustin L. Grimes Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States



Spatial mapping, older adults, cognition, music classes


Older adults facing cognitive challenges may face a decline in spatial skills and as a result may become less confident in navigating their environment. Spatial training has been shown to help ease this decline, and engaging in music has been shown to benefit the spatial skills of musicians. There is a paucity of research investigating ways that music might serve as spatial training for older adults. This study explored music classes as a means of spatial training for older adults across three domains; 1. improving their success rates in staying spatially oriented on the instrument; 2. enhancing their ability to read written music and 3. in reaching better outcomes on a spatial orientation test taken at pre- and post-intervention. Our team developed and tested a 6-week marimba class that targeted spatial training principles for older adults with predementia or early dementia. We assessed the spatial skills with the Orientation Test from the Test of Visual Perceptual Skills pre- and post-intervention. Scores increased an average of 0.71, a clinically meaningful change (d = 0.3). Participants also demonstrated high frequencies of remaining oriented on the instrument. There was also higher incidence of participants’ self-selecting to read music without notes (p < 0.01) over the course of the intervention.

Future research might benefit from music-based training as a means to support spatial skills during cognitive decline.

Author Biographies

Jennie L. Dorris, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, United States Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States

Jennie L. Dorris is a Research Associate in the School of Music 13 at CMU and a PhD student in Rehabilitation Science at the 14 University of Pittsburgh. She developed music classes for 15 BRiTE, a wellness program from the University of Pittsburgh 16 that serves older adults with changes in their cognition. She studies the effects of learning and performing an instrument 18 on older adults. 

Diana J. McLaughlin, Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States

Diana J. McLaughlin is a Research Assistant in the School of 21 Music at CMU. She recently received her Advanced Music 22 Studies degree at CMU and is now pursuing her Master of 23 Music at CMU in French horn performance.

Dustin L. Grimes, Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States

Dustin L. Grimes was a Research Assistant in the School of 26 Music at CMU. He received his Master of Music in trombone 27 performance from CMU and his Bachelor of Music in Music 28 Performance from Texas Christian University.


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