How Playing an Instrument Preserves the Mind

by Wellness Editor – MH

For millions of Americans, there is nothing more enjoyable than spending hours shredding on guitar, slapping bass guitar strings or wailing away on a drum kit. Furthermore, many more would pick up an instrument if only they had the patience, willpower and free time to do so. A 2006 Gallup poll revealed that more than four in five Americans (82%) wished they could play a musical instrument, whereas two-thirds still expressed interest in playing one in the future.

There are certainly several good reasons to start playing guitar, drums or whatever instrument catches your interest. Aside from being a source of entertainment, studies have also linked this hobby to better mental acuity, and some research has found that musical instruments also have a positive effect on hearing. Some people, however, think that they are simply too old to develop their musical talents. While this line of thinking is understandable, evidence suggests that even older adults can benefit from learning an instrument.

Impacting the Brain

The link between the mental health and musical instruments has been the subject of multiple recent studies. One such report comes courtesy of Scotland’s University of St Andrews, which published their findings in the January 2014 issue of the journal Neuropsychologia.

According to this team of researchers, people who recreationally play instruments are better equipped to catch mental mistakes. Musicians included in the study not only identified their miscues in a shorter amount of time, but were also able to correct them with much less difficulty. The lead author of the study, Dr. Ines Jentzsch, noted that the study’s conclusions indicated “that musical activity could be used as an effective intervention to slow, stop or even reverse age, or illness, related decline in mental functioning.”

This wasn’t the first report to make such a connection between musicianship and cognitive health. A 2012 study found that adults who had spent years playing an instrument were less likely to experience cognitive decline. Compared with other subjects, these individuals performed better on tests measuring motor dexterity, mental sharpness, visual-spatial judgment and verbal memory and recall. The study appeared in the July 2012 issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, and observed a total of 70 musicians between the ages of 59 and 80. All of subjects had first picked up their instrument during childhood and had continued playing for at least ten years.

Even adults with no musical experience may benefit from learning an instrument. In a 2013 study, researchers from the UK’s Royal College of Music had a group of older adults take a mental health test. These same subjects retook the test after taking 10 weeks of music lessons. When reviewing this second round of testing, the researchers noted that the participants’ scores improved by 7 percent. Additionally, playing an instrument also seemed to increase the subjects’ exercise levels and amount of social interaction.

Sweet-Sounding News

Aside from keeping the mind in good standing, musical instruments might also prove useful in preventing another common problem for seniors. While it might come across as a bit of a surprise, a research team at Toronto’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) found that lifelong musicians had better hearing than non-musicians.

This particular study observed at total of 163 older adults, ranging between the ages of 18 and 91. Of this group, 74 were either professional or amateur musicians. To qualify for this group, each of these subjects had to have (a) played an instrument since the age of 16, (b) taken musical lessons and (c) had to still be playing an instrument at the time of the study. The remaining 89 participants had never played any type of musical instrument.

Tests revealed that subjects who spent decades honing their instrumental skills were better able to maintain their hearing as they aged. To illustrate this point, the researchers noted that a 70-year old musician and a 50 year old non-musician exhibited the same hearing capabilities.  The study theorized that playing an instrument helps preserve the brain’s ability to process and analyze incoming auditory information.

Which Instrument to Pick?

Should you decide to learn an instrument, the next obvious step is to decide which one to pick. Not surprisingly, your decision will likely be influenced by your musical tastes. People who listen to rock, for example, will likely gravitate towards options like guitar and drums. In contrast, people who are partial to classical music might be more interested in taking piano lessons.

While there is no universal blueprint that can help answer this question, there are some guidelines that could help point you in the right direction:

Living Space – A good number of people live in apartments, condos or townhouses, complete with roommates and walls that allow sound to pass through with little resistance. It goes without saying that such living conditions can make several instruments impractical, particularly those that are especially loud (such as trumpets, horns) or large (pianos). Instead, an acoustic guitar might be a better choice. Electric guitars may also be acceptable, provided you plug a set of headphones into its amplifier.

Budget – Most people who take up music as a hobby will have to buy their chosen instrument from a music store (unless a friend or family member can help them out). Unfortunately, this can be quite an investment. Take guitars, for instance. Depending on several factors (including size, material, condition and the type of guitar), a guitar’s price can range anywhere from $50 to several thousand dollars. Whatever instrument you pick, make sure that it doesn’t derail your budget.

Physical Limitations – You might find that some instruments place too much of a physical demand on your body. A large string instrument like an upright bass may be too heavy; likewise, some people lack the lung capacity to play something like the saxophone. If you suffered from nagging shoulder pain in the past, an electric or acoustic guitar may not represent your best option.

Related Stories

Everyone is well aware of how humid temperatures can tax the human body. Aside from taking a physical toll, …