Playing an instrument changes your brain.
Playing an instrument changes your brain function, activity, and even size.
Albert Einstein once said, “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music.”
When he felt stuck while putting together a theory or equation, he would leave his project and play the piano or violin. He claimed it helped him come up with solutions to sticky problems.
Many famous people played at least one instrument, but can it make you smarter? Maybe. Research shows that playing an instrument can improve brain function and even increase brain volume.
So, you might want to consider signing up for lessons or brushing up on the guitar that’s been gathering dust in the corner forever. Here’s why.
Musical Training Keeps the Brain Sharp
Every time musicians play their instruments fireworks go off in their brain. Playing an instrument engages almost all areas of the brain at once - especially the parts that process visual, auditory and motor cortices. In fact, music engages more of the brain at once than anything else we know of.
Multiple parts of the brain process all the separate tasks that go into playing an instrument separately. Then, the parts of brain involved collaborate to put them all together in super fast, seamless sequences.<1>
Playing an instrument lights up more areas of the brain than anything else.
While listening to music lights up many brain regions, playing an instrument sparks activity in almost the entire brain. As far as brain activity is concerned, the main difference between listening to music and playing it yourself comes down to fine motor skills.
Engaging fine motor skills like finger position, rhythmic movements, and breath control engages both brain hemispheres at once.
Since music is a mathematical language, learning to play a new song is like solving mathematical equations in a second language. And math and language skills are both distinctly left-brained tasks.
At the same time, playing music stimulates the more fluid and creative right brain. The right brain taps into lyrical expression and dynamics, especially during musical improvisation.
When both left and right brain are engaged in playing an instrument, communication between the two improves. New neural connections are created and existing ones are strengthened. It’s like a full body workout for your brain. Every time you practice or perform your brain gets stronger and faster.
What's the Difference?
There are some pretty significant differences between musician's brains and the brains of non-musicians. And the differences start to show from a very young age.
Researchers at the University of Zurich studied IQ levels in elementary school children who played an instrument or did not have any musical training. Students who played instruments showed a significantly higher IQ than kids who did not - up to 7 points higher.<2>
By Chittka L, Brockmann - Perception Space—The Final Frontier, A PLoS Biology Vol. 3, No. 4, e137 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030137 (<1>/<2>), CC BY-SA 2.5, Link
And one study found that a professional musician's auditory cortex has up to 130 percent more gray matter and 102 percent more activity than non-musicians. Even the brains of amateur musicians show up to 32 percent more brain activity than people who don't play at all.<3>
Playing an instrument changes your brain by increasing brain plasticity too. When professor Steven Mithen convinced Larry Parsons, a neurobiologist at the Scripps Research Institute, to conduct a musical experiment for fun, the results showed that everyone can enjoy the brain benefits of playing an instrument. Mithen had never played an instrument, and he was a terrible singer. He took singing lessons for one year, and Parson's scanned Mithen's brain before and after the year of lessons.
After, Mithen's brain showed increases activity in several areas. He still didn't sing very well, but his brain had formed new neural connections and networks to process music.<4>
In music, the voice is considered an instrument. So even if you can't pluck a proper string or hold a steady rhythm, if you have a voice you can be a musician.
Brain Benefits for Musicians
Music and memory share cognitive and neural mechanisms. Learning to play an instrument as a child can protect the brain from memory-related disorders like dementia and Alzheimer's later in life, especially for musicians who read music. And people with memory loss often can remember how to play their instrument or sing along with familiar songs even when other memories deteriorate.<5>
Just listening to music can make you feel better, but playing music can improve your mood even more and for longer. That's because playing music increases levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine that influences the brain's reward and pleasure centers. And playing with other musicians stimulates the brain hormone oxytocin, which helps us bond with others, improving feelings of trust and generosity.
The auditory cortex is directly linked to the motor cortex, which controls things like walking, hand movements, coordination, and eating.<6>When musicians play their instruments, they engage both brain areas, improving control over motor skills. Those with problems managing motor skills, like people with Parkinson's, can manage symptoms by playing an instrument, and many people report reduced tremors, stronger gait, and improved speech.
Various studies have tested the "Mozart effect," a theory which proposes that the music of Mozart has certain special abilities to improve learning, IQ, and test scores in listeners. Although listening to Mozart appears to improve brain performance - especially learning related to mathematical and language understanding - musician's brains may be even more finely tuned to perform higher functions like spatial reasoning.<7>
Playing an instrument can improve language and reading skills. Since it strengthens the connection between the auditory cortex and written words, musicians who read sheet music improve word reading skills each time they play. Children who take music lessons often improve reading skills throughout their education. Kids who don't generally show a decline in reading skills around age 9 or 10.
Playing an instrument has also been linked to better verbal memory, a crucial component for learning a foreign language.
Focus and Concentration
Listening to soothing music with a slow steady tempo is a good way to improve focus in the moment. Many people listen to background music while working, studying, or meditating. However, playing an instrument can improve your overall ability to concentrate. That's because playing an instrument stimulates areas of the prefrontal cortex that regulate executive controls that direct the ability to focus, pay attention, and concentrate over time.
Playing an instrument increases cerebral blood flow and blood oxygen.
Playing an instrument increases cerebral blood flow to the brain's left hemisphere, increasing energy levels. It doesn't matter so much what kind of music you're playing. You could be part of an orchestra, jamming in a rock band, or playing solo. Either way you play, your energy level goes up while your playing and lasts for up to several hours after. So next time you're feeling tired and sluggish, playing your instrument could give you a quick pick-me-up.
Listening to music can reduce anxiety, but playing music can soothe stress even better. Plus, that calm feeling can last longer. The physical part of playing an instrument can ease muscular tension, while playing well can build confidence.
One study suggested musical training may help reduce anxiety by calming the behavior-regulating and motor regions in the brain.<8>
Playing an instrument stimulates both abstract and logical creative thinking.
Playing an instrument really stimulates the right hemisphere - the one that controls creativity and abstract thinking. The more you play, and the more complex the music you play is, the more creative you become.
And that's not all. The left brain isn't generally recognized for creativity, but it can see patterns and formulate new ones. And that's important for various kinds of art and creative projects.
Plus, playing an instrument strengthens the network that connects right and left hemispheres. It can even create new neural connections between them. When right and left brain work together they generate more creative ideas and better solutions than when one is dominant.
Mounting evidence shows that musicians are more resistant to cold and flu viruses. That's because playing an instrument can stimulate the release of immunogoblin A antibodies, strengthening the immune system.
Musicians are better at multitasking. That makes sense, considering playing an instrument and singing require performing multiple tasks simultaneously. Musicians have to control breath, finger movements, tempo, rhythmic patterns, dynamics, and more. They have to watch the conductor for cues, sync with other musicians, read or remember notation, improvise, and sometimes gauge audience response.
Multitasking may be one reason playing an instrument lights up so many brain areas at once.
Make the Most of Music's Brain Boosting Power
While playing an instrument won't give you superpowers, it can help you think faster, make your brain bigger, and lift your mood. While most studies research how playing an instrument affects children, it's never too late to start. Adults can get big benefits from learning to play any instrument. Even amateur and casual players report feeling happier and more confident, having more energy and fun, and improving focus and memory.
If you think you're too old to start learning to play, think again. Playing an instrument increases the brain's plasticity. Plasticity is the brain's ability to learn new things, make new neural connections, and perform normal, healthy functions in different ways.
As we get older, neural connections can deteriorate. Since playing music can protect those connections, it might even help your brain stay younger, longer. And playing an instrument as music therapy can help people recover faster from brain-draining traumas.
For an even bigger boost, nootropics can help encourage the brain changes that happen while playing an instrument.
So what are you waiting for? Grab that guitar, get your kid a drum pad, and start changing your brain today!
- Collins A. How playing an instrument benefits your brain. TEDEd. Accessed Feb 2018.
- Wetter OE, Koerner F, Schwaninger A. Does musical training improve school performance? Instr Sci (2009) 37: 365. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11251-008-9052-y
- Zatorre RJ, Chen JL, Penhune VB. When the brain plays music: auditory-motor interactions in music perception and production. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2007 Jul;8(7):547-58. DOI:10.1038/nrn2152
- Fauble L. From Neanderthal to neuroscience: healing with sound and voice. Voice and Speech Review.Vol. 11, Iss. 1, 2017. doi:10.1080/23268263.2017.1370838
- Help Spread the Music. Music & Memory. 2018.
- Li J, et al. Primary Auditory Cortex is Required for Anticipatory Motor Response. Cereb Cortex. 2017 Jun 1;27(6):3254-3271. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhx079.
- Music and health. Harvard Health Publishing. July 2011.
- Hudziak JJ. Cortical Thickness Maturation and Duration of Music Training: Health-Promoting Activities Shape Brain Development. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. November 2014. Volume 53, Issue 11, Pages 1153–1161.doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2014.06.015