Music is a mysterious force and an integral part of our lives. It entertains and moves us, transports us in time and connects us to one another. Learning to play an instrument is a beautiful and complicated endeavor that requires a lot of time, energy and patience.
There are infinite ways to explore and grow musically, all of which benefit the whole person - for their whole life. Below we explore the ways in which musicianship can enhance the intellectual, physical, social, emotional, vocational and spiritual dynamics of an individual.
Countless studies have examined the connections between music and the mind, and the results indicate a bounty of brainy benefits for those who play music. From early learning to lifelong cognitive function, musicianship enhances intellect in numerous ways.
Playing music involves both the left and right hemispheres of the brain, the auditory cortex (analysis), cerebrum (memory & visualization), cerebellum (reflex actions) and the limbic system (emotions). A single practice session is like a full-body workout for the brain.
Music can help to develop reading and math skills and improves memory. Early literacy skills like phonological awareness are aided by the auditory processing and attention to timbre that occur while playing instruments, and children experiencing difficulties with reading comprehension have benefitted from training in rhythmical performance. Young musicians likewise practice and conceptualize math concepts like fractions, patterns and physics as they play. Music making increases memory, as playing an instrument requires constant use of the working memory and is thought to expand its capacity.
Playing music might also change the structure of the brain itself. Those who have played music since childhood have been found to have thicker corpus callosums, or “bridges” between the two sides of their brain. Scientists attribute this bridge building to extended practice time, and the result is a mind with enhanced intracommunication.
Long-term musicianship also results in a “fitter brain” that holds up better during the cognitive aging process and resists dementia. Neural connections forged during lessons, practice and performance supply pathway options for when others fail over time, and older adults with musical experience have proven to perform better on cognitive tests.
Creativity is another intellectual benefit of musicianship. Composition and improvisation, in particular, use unique areas of the brain and allow mental practice in thinking outside of the box, an ever-essential life skill to develop.
Playing an instrument provides musicians with distinct physical benefits.
Perhaps most obvious is the development of coordination and fine motor skills, whether on piano keys or the strings of a guitar, gripping mallets or the delicate handling of a bow.
Simultaneous movement or ambidexterity is also improved by musicianship. Consider how the whole body is involved in playing a single note on a saxophone, from proper posture and breath to finger placement and timing. Likewise, percussive instruments demand both independent and cohesive use of arms and legs.
The physical benefits of playing music actually extend beyond the development of particular skills. It can make you healthier overall. Music making among older adults lowers blood pressure, decreases heart rate, and reduces stress, anxiety and depression. The immune system gets a boost, too. Playing along to uplifting music not only reduces stress hormone levels that undermine the immune system but also increases the body’s level of antibodies. Proper breathing and good posture, as required of singers in particular, are additional immune-boosting advantages to musicianship.
Music is a powerful social force. It brings people together and serves as the foundation for many deep and prosperous relationships.
From composition to performance, music is an intensely collaborative art. Individuals in musical groups must constantly respond, negotiate, compromise, trust, and respect each other.
Music also encourages broader social horizons as musicians experience culture and history beyond their everyday worlds. There is a great deal of empathy required in playing music written by people who exist in different planes of space and time. Consider the power of playing Mozart’s somber Requiem, which he wrote for his own funeral, the adoration behind Paul McCartney’s "Maybe I’m Amazed," which he wrote for the love of his life, or the simple triumph in playing your school’s fight song. Likewise, we learn by grappling with the complex differences in musical foundations and nuance across cultures. Learning to play Dave Brubeck’s widely popular Blue Rondo a la Turk is an exercise in Turkish time signatures. Learning Paul Simon’s Graceland cannot be done without exposure to African drumming techniques. By simply learning songs, musicians develop a broader understanding of the people around them and before them.
Musicianship also leads one to communities of like-minded people, where there’s a sense of fitting in and belonging, as well as mutual support for musical passions and pursuits. Such communities are grounded in artistic expression, discipline and camaraderie and can be the source of life-long friendships.
Musician’s emotional lives benefit from their craft. Being a musician means having a built-in outlet for relaxation and self-expression. When emotions demand attention, music provides the perfect vehicle for addressing them.
Music is also a natural way to regulate your mood. Play some energizing pop for a pick-me-up or a dreamy instrumental to wind down. Or in a time of sadness, play anything at all, simply to keep your mind occupied.
Being a musician can contribute greatly to one’s self concept and self esteem. It provides a sense of achievement through overcoming frustrations and a source of identity, particularly during challenging times like adolescence.
Musicians are well poised for employment and entrepreneurship, as many skills acquired in learning an instrument transfer generally and directly to the work force.
Successful musicianship, like successful business practice, involves delayed gratification, immense discipline and perseverance towards a goal. Sustained focus is crucial, as is taking constructive criticism in stride.
Becoming a musician also typically involves an element of public performance. Being comfortable “on the spot” or on-stage is a tremendous vocational skill that seasoned musicians have typically developed. It is often said that the number one fear for many people is public speaking, and musicians have often already practiced overcoming this fear.
Playing an instrument also contributes to improved executive function, a set of neurological skills that include time management, focus and attention, planning and organization, recall, discretion, and multitasking. Broadly speaking, executive function is the control over one’s own mind, and musicians continually exhibit better executive function than non-musicians. The takeaway of learning an instrument is a set of cognitive skills that translate directly to success in life and the workplace.
Music is part of the universal human experience. Like language, every culture on Earth throughout history has had music. Through music we understand each other's feelings and perceptions, which are often reflected in our own soul. Through music we commune as a species, singing hymns or sacred tribal songs, call and response spirituals or Tibetan chants.
Beyond the shared experience, music also taps into our deep, unconscious emotions and can remind us who we really are as individuals. Certain songs can stirs our hearts and stoke our spirits, even without our awareness. There’s nothing quite as arresting as the sudden wash of joy or sadness that a familiar song can evoke.
The process of playing an instrument, shedding inhibitions and becoming one with the music is quite spiritual as well. Musicians often reach a place of joy and stillness while performing. They transcend the distractions of the body and mind, becoming one with the moment. Music takes them there.