What are the mental benefits of playing an instrument?

Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll” is an undeniable classic. It’s a high-energy, feel-good song that’s hard not to like. You can’t help but hear Seger’s raspy voice when you read those enduring lyrics, “Still like that old time rock n’ roll / That kind of music just soothes the soul.”

And music truly does soothe the mind, body and soul. Banging out a rendition of one of your favorite songs can do much more than lift your spirits. Believe it or not, playing an instrument can boost your cognitive abilities as well, even reshaping your brain structure.

The benefits of playing an instrument extend to individuals of all ages, meaning it’s never too late to take up music. You don’t have to be a natural Bob Seger to reap the advantages, either. So what do those advantages entail? And how does playing an instrument shape your brain?


A closer look at music’s effect on cognition

Early musical training has a positive effect on the way your brain processes sound. More specifically, it enhances the neural pathways we’re all inherently born with. Though musicians and non-musicians both have these pathways, the auditory areas of the musically inclined are more active.  

One study showed that the temporal lobes exhibited heightened activity when musicians listen to tunes as compared to non-musicians. People who play instruments are also likely to have more gray matter in their brains. You’ll find an abundance of it in regions that deal with sound and motor activity, like the somatosensory cortex, temporal lobes, premotor cortex and Broca’s area.

You don’t have to undergo rigorous education to achieve a super-powered brain, however. There’s no requirement for being genetically blessed with musical talent, either. These studies point more readily to the conclusion that your musical abilities influence your brain structure, rather than vice versa.

Learning to play the clarinet from a friend or parent is enough to set your brain up for great things. Concepts learned in childhood become more permanent because of a young brain’s neuroplasticity, or ability to change. This neuroplasticity is important in developing new connections. 

That’s not to say adults can’t benefit, too. Older people who listen to music or learn to play instruments receive much-needed mental stimulation, which slows aging in the brain.


How instruments amp up your cognition

Playing an instrument engages several parts of your brain, mainly those associated with motor skills and sensory recognition. After all, it takes practiced coordination to pluck guitar strings or press saxophone buttons.

Your cognitive abilities become sharper from continued exercise, enabling you to retain more memories or quickly solve problems. The increased brain matter also promotes higher levels of cognitive processing. The more neural connections you have, the stronger your mind will be.

Music can even help offset dementia and other types of cognitive decline in older adults. The brain becomes more resilient by exercising both specific — such as auditory — and general brain regions. A systematic review of older adults and music-making revealed that inhibition, processing speed and attention span experienced improvements from regular musical practice. The most significant advances occurred in general-function brain areas dealing with skills like reasoning and spatial organization.

Neuroplasticity remains malleable even in older age, although it’s less flexible than in younger years. New concepts require more reinforcement to stick, but they stimulate better brain functioning when they do.

With this information, you may be rocking out well into your golden years. Your music career can do a lot more than pay the bills. It can strengthen your mind in a multitude of different ways.


Stepping back to see the larger picture

You now know that playing an instrument can improve your mental capabilities, which subsequently enhances your skill with music. But did you know it also boosts your capacity to read, write and speak?

With language and auditory brain regions sharing close links, it’s no surprise that communication also sees an improvement. Many singers are proficient songwriters and orators, which speaks to the auditory-language connection. 

Beyond cognition, mental health improves as well. Music can alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety and lower stress levels. An analysis of various music interventions showed that songs have a significant effect on reducing the physical and psychological symptoms of stress. 

Psychological relief from stress ties into the relationship between music and the amygdala — the emotion center of the brain. Musicians’ amygdalas tend to show higher activity rates compared to non-musicians. This phenomenon suggests that artists have a stronger connection with their emotional states and a heightened ability to identify feelings.

Music also has a host of social benefits. It offers new opportunities to connect with others through collaborations and similar activities. By building these connections, you create lasting relationships and enhance your overall quality of life.


Getting the most from your music

You can enjoy the benefits above, but not without work. It takes a time investment and serious dedication to reap the rewards of music. Start by practicing on your piano, guitar or any other instrument you can find.

This learning experience presents the perfect opportunity to create a studio for developing your skills. Your space doesn’t have to be extravagant or super intricate. Just add a workstation to your garage and turn it into the ideal practicing room, or convert your old loft into a studio.

Simplify your workstation by labeling all your cables and tying them up when not in use. Only take out the equipment you need for each session and put everything else in a storage closet or containers. Hang a power cord overhead and use other strategies to organize the area. You should:

  • Make use of your vertical space
  • Install wall-mounted lighting
  • Arrange an area for charging devices

These tips are particularly important if you own a lot of larger instruments like drums or a full-size keyboard. Many musicians who start by themselves use a circular setup for their studio. This arrangement allows them to record with their instruments and then compose on the computer, with all their tools in the immediate vicinity.

Want a good place to start? Practice finding your vocal range by finding middle C on your piano or guitar and singing each note down from that. You’ll need to know your scope and vocal type to receive the maximum benefits.

Once you’ve nailed down your range, experiment with playing vocal melodies on your chosen instrument. Doing so will give you a new perspective on how to arrange the notes.


Refine your mind by doing what you love

Use this newfound information and your love of music to create something catchy. Each time you play, you further your musical and cognitive development, taking you a step closer to artistic genius.

Who says you can’t rule the airways with your talent? Sit down with your instrument and put your mind to the test. You might write the next classic, “that kind of music that soothes the soul.”