Virtually every list of recommendations for brain health includes something about the benefits of playing a musical instrument.
The good news is, even if you dodged piano lessons as a kid or played baseball instead of tuba, it’s not too late to reap the rewards of music making.
I understand you’re older now, and the thought of picking up a new instrument or reuniting with an old one may feel daunting.
However, I recently discovered a body of brain health research that offers some exciting scientifically proven reasons to get musical.
Boosts Healthy Social Connections
This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who played in high school band or a church ensemble. According to research, when we join others in creating music, we tend to experience positive feelings towards our fellow band or ensemble members.1
Scientists aren’t exactly sure why this occurs. It could be the mere act of creating something with other people that releases endorphins in the brain, which may explain why we feel so great making music with others.
Social isolation is a particular concern for older people, and we’ve explored this topic in our sister newsletter Brain Health Breakthroughs.
Research has linked loneliness to higher risks of cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, and even death.2
One 2019 study, from the University of Sheffield, concentrated on a group of brass band players. Researchers found that the musicians all value the social aspects of band participation. Additionally, they enjoyed having support networks and a sense of belonging.3
One musician, who had started playing relatively late in life, said, “If you are prepared to spend the time and effort to master a brass instrument, you will never be lonely or bored again.”
He added that “there are so many bands out there and many are crying out for players, that you could be out every day of the week playing with some band. This in turn will lead to great social interaction with people of similar musical interests.”4
And it doesn’t have to be a brass band! Joining a small ensemble, or simply harmonizing with friends and loved ones can have the very same social benefits.
There’s plenty of other research that may encourage you to dust off that old clarinet or violin.
Better Blood Flow to The Brain
That’s right, musical training actually increases blood flow to the brain. A pair of studies at the University of Liverpool concluded that short bursts of musical training increase blood flow to the left hemisphere of the brain. Previous research suggests the same area of the brain is used to process language.
The lead researcher, undergraduate student Amy Spray, and Dr. G. Meyer discussed the significance at the British Psychological Society annual conference in May 2014.
“It was fascinating to see that the similarities in blood flow signatures could be brought about after just half an hour of simple musical training,” the researchers noted.
“This suggests that the correlated brain patterns were the result of using areas thought to be involved in language processing. Therefore, we can assume that musical training results in a rapid change in the cognitive mechanisms for music perception and these shared mechanisms are usually employed for language.”
What does this mean in layman’s speak? Maybe the solution to an afternoon mental slump is not a big cup of coffee, but rather a half hour plinking away at the piano or strumming a guitar.
Making Music is Strength-Training For Your Brain!
Your brain relies on something called the “executive function” for a variety of critical tasks, including processing and retaining information, controlling behavior, problem-solving, and more.5
When the executive function dips, you start to lose your ability to manage the daily cognitive demands of life. Conversely, if you strengthen your executive function, you increase your mental acuity and your ability to live productively.
That’s Where Music Comes In
A 2014 review discovered that musical training improves and strengthens executive functioning in both adults and children.6 The research offers significant ramifications because executive function is strongly associated with academic achievement.
The review reveals multiple studies that found possible association between musical training and optimizing your cognition in general.
“Musical engagement may be a useful cognitive training to promote cognitive enhancement in inexpensive, efficient, and healthy ways—perhaps even for those not genuinely interested in music,” the authors explain.
“In particular, musical training may be a very valuable approach to counteract the deteriorative effect of aging on cognitive functioning.”
Whether participating in a band or simply taking in a concert, music connects us to other humans in remarkable ways. Like playing a rousing game of cards or hitting a ball at the tennis court, music can provide great social and mental health benefits.
And like learning a new language and other challenging forms of self-improvement, learning a new instrument can stimulate your brain and get the blood flowing to strengthen your memory and keep it sharp for years to come!
- Victoria J. Williamson et al. Wellbeing in Brass Bands: The Benefits and Challenges of Group Music Making, Frontiers in Psychology (2019)