Why you should stick with music practice

Image courtesy of JONATHAN KING

When animals play violin

My recently turned seven year old has just started playing violin. While practising the other day she had our dog nearby and, as the first screech reached our dog, he began to howl for all he was worth. Within moments the cats joined in, both of them wailing their little hearts out. After a short but intense recital on the same string, she moved to her next string. I mean, piece.

Again, howling and wailing. Not to be deterred, tongue poking out determinedly as she concentrated, she persevered. So, too, did the animals.

One more time. All together now.

Our neighbor, although a little hard of hearing, had clearly heard enough. Calling above the noise he asked “Surely you could play something the animals don’t know!!”

She didn’t get the joke.

The benefits you’ve heard about

It’s been around for some time, in various ways, that music is good for kids’ brains in various ways – some good research and some less so.

It will help make my kid smart, or teach them the discipline of work and how effort generates results, or help their memory and language skills, or teach them to work in a team, or give them a focus so they more easily avoid a bad crowds, and so on. And there is, of course, the possibility that your kid could be great and have a glittering career…

It’s certainly and obviously true that repeated practice will develop those areas of the brain required for music, such as the auditory areas and the motor, or movement, areas related to the hands.

And, yes, there are some clear mental benefits such as cognitive flexibility, which is your brain’s ability to manage and adapt to new information. But what’s really interesting, is some new research that suggests that the benefits of learning to play an instrument may show in other ways.

Brain decline

As we age, we show predictable brain changes. While it’s something of a generalization, we could say we lose the mental speed and agility of youth, but gain greater connectivity and relatedness between brain areas. The fluidity of a young brain becomes more crystallized in an old one, but the greater exposure to experience and information of an old brain shows as wisdom.

The most obvious physical brain change is that we lose brain volume. That is to say, the amount of gray matter we have, the stuff the brain is made of, decreases as we get older. There is a general decline in gray matter, but also specific declines in the key area of the frontal lobes – the complex mental machinery we all have that sits directly behind our foreheads.

This is where we do our most advanced thinking, and where we see regular declines in volume associated with age. But in studies of musicians versus non-musicians, the differences in volume were impressive, with musicians showing little, or even no decline in brain volume when compared with their non-musician counterparts.

A highbrow way of saying this is that playing music may be neuroprotective. Clearly, if we play music into older age, we’ll have better mental performance and less gray matter decline than if we don’t.

Actually? Not so fast.

And this is the really interesting bit.

There seem to be benefits in starting a musical instrument at any age, and sticking with it – brain changes have been shown in non-musicians after practising for only two weeks! So we should all play. Intuitively, the later we start, the fewer the benefits, so generally better to start early.

But get this.

If we get it right, the benefits may long outlast the practice years.

Here’s the kicker

Well, according to recently published research, if we start playing music young, say by 10 years of age, and then persist with music for about 10 years, the benefits we gain may not disappear.

This, from the angle of the “use it or lose it” school, is fascinating.

Typically, we’d argue that, at least for skills, regular practice keeps us honed and the brain circuits running those skills in fine form. But here, where the musicians had had 10 years of practice and then stopped, the benefits hung around for decades.

So these aren’t the specific musical skills, but a global benefit in brain volume and function gained from 10 years of music practice as a kid, that persisted for decades and which we know to be neuroprotective in later life. As we live longer than ever before, perhaps we can’t ignore it.

So here’s the take home bit

Need any other incentive to start your kids off with music?

No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog, but I make no promises about their safety during music practice.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat


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Some additional reading…

The Relation Between Instrumental Musical Activity and Cognitive Aging,” Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, PhD, and Alicia MacKay, PhD, University of Kansas Medical Center; Neuropsychology, Vol. 25, No. 3

Sluming V, Barrick T, Howard M, Cezayirli E, Mayes A, Roberts N: Voxel-based morphometry reveals increased gray matter density in Broca’s area in male symphony orchestra musicians. Neuroimage. 2002,17:1613–22.


About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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One Response to Why you should stick with music practice

  1. Pingback: Building better brains (Part 1 of 2) | Bite sized brains

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