The Benefits of Learning a Musical Instrument as an Adult

Have you always wanted to play the guitar?  Or learn how to play the piano?  There are many benefits of learning a musical instrument as an adult.  This post isn’t trying to prove that it is better to learn music as an adult (vs. a child).  It simply states that learning as an adult definitely has benefits. 

(1) Adults Can Increase Their Brain Plasticity

Their what?  Increased brain plasticity means the nervous system has adapted to change… found new ways of learning… sometimes after an injury or a stroke… but more commonly after acquiring a new skill.  Studies have shown that younger brains may change more readily.  However, according to Science Magazine older brains have definitely not lost the capacity to change. 

Researchers have examined whether there are critical periods in the development of specific skills like music.  A study of violinists was conducted in 1995 by Thomas Elbert of the University of Konstanz in Germany and Edward Taub of the University of Alabama.  It included musicians who started before the age of 12, musicians who started as adults, and non-musicians.  The scientists found that the left hand (which requires more dexterity than the right when playing the violin) of all string musicians is represented by a larger area in the brain’s touch sensing region than the left hand of non-musicians.  The touch sensing region in the musicians who learned as children was larger than those who learned as adults, possibly indicating that the brain is more receptive to musical training earlier in life.  However, in all cases the brain had changed!  This shows an increase in circuitry and neurotransmitters regardless of when the skill was learned.  An awakening of the brain.  Thomas Elbert summarizes his study in his own words,

“Twenty years ago people thought that the structure of the brain develops during childhood and once that organisation in the brain has been developed that there is very little room for changes and for plastic alterations. Now we know that there is enormous capacity.” 

Essentially this proves that learning a musical instrument as an adult is not only possible, but it may also improve your cognitive abilities. 

Lift your right foot off the floor and make clockwise circles.  Now draw the number 6 in the air with your right hand.  For most people their foot changes direction (mine does!).  Keep working on it and you will increase your Brain Plasticity.

(2) Adults are Goal-Oriented

Adults are more focused and more goal-oriented than children.  Adults are self-driven (is that a word?).  Adults are learning because they want to – not because mom is making them.

(3) Adults Can Understand the “Why”

Children who start very young usually learn scales at an age at which they really don’t understand why they are being asked to do them.  I can honestly tell you that when I was 5 years old I had no idea why I had to play all those scales.  Adults can easily understand the theory behind music… and why practice makes perfect.

(4) Stress Relief!

I have been playing the piano since I was 2 (so I’ve been told).  I have been playing the violin for 2 months.  When I’m playing the piano, there is still room for thoughts to enter my head like “what should I make for dinner?”, “did I pay that bill?”, “why am I a loser?”.  When I am playing the violin, it is honestly so hard for me that nothing else can enter my mind.  I can completely forget about everything, and I feel totally refreshed and stress-free after about 30 minutes of “playing”.  

A groundbreaking study in the February 2005 Issue of the Medical Science Monitor showed that playing a musical instrument can reverse “multiple components of the human stress response on the genomic level”.  I have no idea what that means, but it sounds good.  The study stated that this is the same effect that meditation has.  And we all know that meditation relieves stress.

(5) Improved Quality of Life

Some of the greatest benefits of music include group classes and performances… especially for anyone living alone or retired.  A 1999 study, “Music Making and Wellness”, sponsored by the International Music Products Association (of course – ha!), found that seniors who participated in group keyboard lessons reported significantly decreased feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness.  They also showed an increase in human growth hormone (hGH), which has been linked to positive effects on aging such as increased energy levels, decreased wrinkling (okay, really?  I need to see more info on that.), lower chance of osteoporosis, increased muscle mass, and fewer aches and pains.

Additionally, preliminary results of an on-going George Washington University study of adults 65 and over indicated that those who took part in a senior chorale group fared better in a variety of social, behavioral, quality of life and mental health measures than did those in a control group who did not take part in musical instruction.  The chorale group in fact reported better overall health including fewer doctor visits, fewer falls, fewer hip fractures, lower levels of depression, less loneliness and better morale.  Wow!  As if that isn’t enough they also reported fewer vision problems than they had at the start of study, and increased their overall level of activity.

So, if you been thinking of taking up guitar or piano or any musical activity after all these years… it looks like it’s a great idea!

Sources:

  1. Science: Vol. 288. no. 5474, pp. 2116 – 2119; DOI: 10.1126/science.288.5474.211623 June 2000
  2. Levine School of Music. “MakingMusic… It’s not too late to learn” Copyright © 2004 – 07
  3. Medical Science Monitor. Recreational music-making modulates the human stress response: a preliminary individualized gene expression strategy; February 2005

16 Comments

  1. As an adult student of the violin, and as an adult with multiple sclerosis (MS), I appreciate knowing that science supports the idea that learning to play an instrument is beneficial for adults as well as children. As a violin teacher, I know far too many other music teachers who won’t bother with an older or a disabled student, because “it’s too late” or because disability makes learning too hard. But such attitudes overlook the benefits to be gained by the older student or the disabled student.
    Thanks for this article.

    Sincerely,
    Laurie Trlak
    Kokomo, IN

    1. I am very interested in learning to play a musical instrument. I also have multiple sclerosis, it was diagnosed 19 months ago. Now I have to decide on which one.

  2. Thank you for this article it is one that resonates deeply with me. I have been learning the piano as an older student for three years.

    During that time I have been aware of some significant changes in patterns of thinking, cognition precessing, and general well being.

    The piano came at a time of personal grief and loss, hence I have been interested in the ways in which learning to play music restores the soul.

    I’m interested in the relationship between playing music and increased brain plasticity especially.

    I’d be interested in exploring any research that has been done in this area or if any one is conducting research.

  3. I have always found music,ie, playing piano, guitar etc, very beneficial. As i have taught myself over many years as an adult, it has added to my life a real sense of self worth which i couldn’t find elsewhere. I hope others can find the contentement in music that i have-GO FOR IT!

  4. This is a wonderful and encouraging article.

    I have always wanted to play banjo. Somehow, my life did not calm down enough until 58 to start playing it. I decided time spent learning an instrument was a gift I wanted to give myself. When I was very young, I found sticking with learning an instrument frustrating, because as a youngster I wanted everything NOW! “Its going to take me TWO YEARS to get throught this music method? You’re kidding!”

    As an older person, my attitude seems to be different , and I am having a blast learning. I will stubbornly stick with a piece until I learn it cold, even if I have to play it a hundred times. I have lost the “right now” attitude. I don’t care how long it takes because the learning of the music and the techniques involved is more important to me than when I finish the book: I actually am enjoying the process itself.
    It is definitely NOT “too late”. In some cases it may be “too early”!

  5. I´m 30 years old and I just started taking drums lessons about a month ago, I’ve always wanted to learn to play drums throughout my life, but I didn´t have the money nor the time to do it until now. My instructor is amazed of how fast I am learning while everybody keeps telling me ”you must be out of your mind, you´re too old!!´´ let me tell you that I had never touched a drums set before and now (after 5 lessons in 1 month) I can play 4 full songs, I even played with a band last saturday at a halloween party.

    I DO believe you have the capacity to learn ANYTHING at any age ( I learned english at the same pace as my 6 year old sister when I was 22 years old) and learning to play an instrument is NOT the exception. Those who say ”I can´t I´m too old” are just fooling themselves or making up excuses. Yes, you can! No, you´re never too old to learn to play an instrument!

    Great article! (and funny too) it inspired me even more to continue with my lessons! =)

  6. Finally some one has written an article on learning music instrument as an adult. Good one, i am 30 and have just picked up guitar and for me goals are pretty clear.

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