For people who like to do brain “exercise,” working crossword puzzles or playing computer games is pretty standard fare. But you’ll likely get a better brain workout by picking up a guitar, cello or clarinet instead—and, for good measure, joining a band or orchestra.
CREATE YOUR OWN NEURAL SYMPHONY
Why is music so great for brain health? Scientists know that it’s one of the few activities that engages many areas of your brain at the same time.
When you read a musical score, for example, your brain processes several notes per second, taking in each note’s pitch, duration, intensity, volume, articulation and tone quality. Then the brain sends out signals to your nerves and muscles so you can physically turn those notes into a melody.
If you’re playing in a band or orchestra, you must listen even more carefully, blending your sounds with those of your fellow players. This involves constantly making small adjustments to stay in time and in tune—a process that requires total focus and engages even more areas of your brain.
Scans show that parts of the brain that govern auditory, visual, sensory and motor and emotional function are all engaged when musicians practice and perform. It’s not surprising that scans have also revealed that musicians have superior memories and executive function—brain processes tied to planning, solving problems and focusing.
The perks are more than cognitive. Playing an instrument requires your undivided attention, giving you the same stress-reducing advantages as meditating does.
There are also health benefits—music-making can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, according to a study from the Netherlands. Plus, your body pumps out extra oxytocin, a hormone that can make you feel less anxious and more connected to your fellow players.
AGE IS AN ADVANTAGE
Many people assume that they’re past the age when they can learn how to make music. But that’s not true. Adult learners actually have an edge over children in several ways. For example, adults tend to…
• Practice more effectively. Adult learners take their goals seriously and often have more discipline, thanks to years in the workforce.
• Draw on experiences. A lifetime of ups and downs lets you create music in a richer, more emotional way than younger folks.
• Have been lifelong listeners.
Years spent hearing different genres of music make it easier to grasp music’s basic structures, such as chords, phrases and form.
HOW TO START AND KEEP PLAYING
To succeed when learning a new musical instrument, follow these steps…
• Choose your instrument. Don’t base your decision on instruments you may have stored in your attic (for example, an instrument your child used to play). If you just love the sound of a particular instrument, that should be your first choice. However, it’s best to rent initially instead of buying in case you change your mind.
Note: Medical issues or physical limitations can impact your instrument choice. For example, if you have arthritis or dental work, certain instruments may not be advisable. Check with your doctor if you have any questions.
• Practice, practice, practice. Once you have some basics down, pick a few songs that you love and play them repeatedly. When doing so, focus on making your music more creative and expressive.
• Expect plateaus. You may well reach a point when you feel you are no longer improving. Don’t get frustrated. Instead, go back and review the basics that got you this far. Keep polishing those skills, and you may find that you break through to the next level.
For example, maybe you are discouraged because you can’t play high notes on your instrument. If you are patient and keep playing the notes you can play comfortably, the higher notes will probably eventually come.
• Don’t let an ailment set you back. Poor vision, hearing or mobility isn’t an obstacle to playing music. You can get your eyeglass prescription tweaked or read your music from an iPad so you can enlarge the notes. A hearing aid might help.
Find out from fellow players what they’ve done to overcome physical challenges. They may have ingenious solutions. And with practice, your fingers are sure to get nimbler and those music-centric regions of your brain will wake up.
• Look for inspiration. Listen to music you love…as often as you can. There’s nothing like a rousing rendition of your favorite melodies to keep you motivated. Helpful: Go to YouTube.com and search your favorite songs and/or performers. Whether you want to play sax like Charlie Parker or violin like Hilary Hahn, you’ll find hours of enjoyment—and inspiration!
JOIN A MUSIC GROUP!
New Horizons Music, a nonprofit organization that encourages adults to get together to make music, sponsors more than 200 ongoing music groups in all regions of the US. Most of these musicians are beginners, though others are returning to skills learned in childhood.
To find a group in your area, go to NewHorizonsMusic.org. If you don’t find one in your specific location, New Horizons can help you start one. The cost to join a group ranges from zero to several hundred dollars, depending on the particular group. Music camps are also available for a fee that covers the cost of instruction, room and food.
Another option: Check out community and church choirs and orchestras. You can also search online with your hometown and the word “band” or “orchestra.” You can check local music stores or community centers for leads on an individual teacher. Helpful: Look for someone with a pleasant personality, patience and a good sense of humor.