There is a great deal of evidence indicating that playing a musical instrument is good for you. Much has been written about the benefits of studying music. A great deal of the information we run across addresses the advantages bestowed on the young student and correlates to brain development, motor skills, establishing productive problem solving skills, work habits, etc. The inventory is long, well researched and most certainly worth paying attention to. Although I am not suggesting that the only reason to learn to play an instrument is because it’s good for your health, it is certainly nice to know that these benefits exist for those who are currently playing or considering playing an instrument. The topic of this post presents evidence that playing a musical instrument is particularly good for our health as we age.
A lifetime of instrument playing keeps our brains sharper and relieves stress, the trigger to so many mental and physical ailments. The University of Kansas Medical Center divided 70 healthy adults, age 60 to 83 into two groups determined by the participant’s music playing experience and found that seasoned musicians all tested better in cognitive skills than those who had never played an instrument. Another study by Harvard neurologist Gottfried Schlaug, showed that the brains of professional adult musicians contain a larger volume of gray matter (associated with the central nervous system) and other studies have shown an increased volume of white matter (associated with the brain’s plasticity or ability to adapt to change).
Even among the larger group comprised of all who have taken music lessons, both in childhood and/or in adulthood, there are a multitude of benefits gained from music lessons including building a defense against memory loss, cognitive decline and hearing and speech loss. After only after 15 months of training in early childhood motor and auditory improvements begin to appear and astoundingly, those improvements last a lifetime; they are maintained as we age and become more prone to decline. The neural connections accrued are not lost during the aging process and help compensate for normal declines associated with aging, according to Brenda Hanna-Pladdy of Emory Unversity of Atlanta. The hours spent learning an instrument enhance brain function in both hemispheres, both at the time of study and for years to come. The longer you play, the better. Hanna-Pladdy published a study in 2012 confirming that the greatest long-term benefits are conferred by beginning musical training before age nine and keeping at it for at least ten years.
The long term positive effects of musical training on hearing and speech in the elderly population were studied by Nina Kraus of Northwestern University in Chicago. She found that among older adults, those who studied a musical instrument between the ages of four and fourteen had more acute hearing and quicker responses to auditory stimulation than those who didn’t, even if they hadn’t played an instrument in 40 years. The significance is obvious, especially when you consider the link between hearing and communicating. When your nervous system is so longer able to keep up with the timing necessary to process sound, words are lost and consequently you lose the ability to participate in conversation which can quickly start a downward spiral leading to social isolation. Kraus hypothesizes that musical training creates a precise connection between sound and meaning – the notes on the page represent sounds created through finger movements and/or breath.
With so much focus on the benefits of starting music lessons at a young age you might be feeling as though it is too late for you, but don’t despair. Jennifer Bugos, of the University of South Florida studied those who began lessons between the ages of 60 and 86 and found that after just six months there was an increase in memory skills, verbal fluency and auditory processing speed, ability to plan and other cognitive functions. In addition to all of the benefits related to brain function, Suzanne Hanser, chair of the music therapy department at the Berklee College of Music has found that playing a musical instrument can lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, reduce stress, lessen anxiety and depression, and enhance your immune system.
Playing a music instrument is good for your health. Providing your children with lessons and encouraging them to stick with it is indeed good for them. As you can see, studies indicate that the health benefits they gain will last forever. The longer they play the more profound the benefits. Additionally, it is never too late to begin so if you have been considering music lessons, don’t wait. The sooner you begin the sooner you can realize the multitude of health benefits associated with playing a musical instrument.