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Westminster At Lake Ridge Blog

WLR Blog
Posted: Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Learning to play music is a great brain workout

senior-musiciansjpgYou may never be able to play the piano like Van Cliburn, but you can learn to play your favorite songs. You may never reach Eric Clapton’s level of proficiency on the guitar, but you can learn to strum well enough to accompany yourself and others in a sing-along.

As with so many things in life, it’s the journey that counts. Many people pick up a musical instrument to express themselves or just have fun. But you might be surprised to find that learning to play a musical instrument can help defend against memory loss and declines in brain function.

Neuroscientists have found that just listening to music activates and engages several areas of your brain. But playing a musical instrument causes your brain to light up like a fireworks display!

In the past few decades, neuroscientists have learned a lot about how our brains work by watching with imaging technology like PET scanners while subjects perform various tasks, such as reading, solving math problems or drawing. Each of these tasks causes activity in particular parts of the brain.

When researchers studied subjects listening to music, they saw multiple areas of the brain light up with activity. They found that different parts of the brain process elements of music like melody and rhythm, and then the brain puts them all together. Our remarkable brains work to perform this complex task so we can enjoy the experience of a concert or recording.

If listening to music is like doing bicep curls, then playing a musical instrument is like a full-body workout. When you play the piano or guitar, your brain processes a multitude of information and makes multiple connections in split-second sequences. To scientists observing musicians as they play while connected to an imaging device, it looks like fireworks going off all over the brain. They think that’s because playing music engages areas throughout the brain, including the visual, auditory and motor cortices.

Furthermore, the more you engage in structured practice on a musical instrument, the more you strengthen these areas of the brain, as well as the connections between the hemispheres. That’s why scientists call playing music a full-brain activity.

Learning to play a musical instrument is pleasurable, and the brain skills you develop may translate to other areas of your life. Scientists think musical practice may improve your ability to plan, strategize and pay attention to detail. They’ve also found that musicians have a greater ability to form, store and retrieve memories.

Taking music lessons as a child provides benefits that last for decades, even if you haven’t picked up an instrument in years. But research confirms that it’s never too late to reap the benefits.

A study at the University of South Florida looked at older adults who began taking piano lessons compared with a group that did not take lessons. Assistant Professor of Music Education Jennifer Bugos found that those who received the lessons had greater gains in memory, verbal fluency, speed of processing information, planning and other mental functions than those who didn’t. Other researchers have found that musical training also may help you hear better.

According to educator Anita Collins, music provides more of these brain benefits than any other activity that’s been studied, including other arts. If you’d like to learn more about how playing music benefits your brain, take a look at this entertaining Ted-Ed presentation Collins put together.

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