Who Should Learn to Play Music?

Those of us who have mastered a musical instrument find it hard to imagine life without it. This training has given us a way of participating in music in its many forms, from “Happy Birthday” to a classical symphony. Playing an instrument has allowed many of us to give shape to our inner lives. It appears that our very brains reap benefits of which we are not even aware, but which enhance our health and experience of life.

Sadly, many people have never experienced this. Learning to sing or play an instrument takes time and resources. You probably know many people who have never learned to play an instrument, or who believe that they “can’t sing”. The good news is that it is never too late to learn. Of course, if you want your child to be a professional musician, you need to start early, and to be frank, you should give that some very careful thought. But if your goal is to enrich your own life, or your child’s, learning music is one of the best ways to do this.

What are the Benefits for Children?

When you watch someone play a musical instrument, you are seeing a complex symphony of various skills. For example, to play the violin, you must coordinate the bow with the violin, using the arms. The amount of pressure you apply will affect the sound. You must also judge whether the sound is in tune. The player must constantly monitor this and make adjustments when necessary. The player has to remember how the melody moves. Finally, you must anticipate the next items in the sequence. Music “happens” when the mind and body work together.

These are complicated, interrelated skills. They also happen to be the very same skills that a child needs in order to learn effectively at school. Therefore, developing these skills through music has a direct effect on cognition and readiness for education and schooling.

Music and All-Round Development

But that’s not the end of the story. Because music is, itself, a language, it encodes meaning in symbols. Musical training requires that you learn these symbols. This is much like learning to read and write English. To learn English, you have to master the Latin alphabet. However, unlike most alphabets, musical notation is highly stratified and communicates multiple streams of information simultaneously. A written note encodes intonation, pitch and rhythm. This system of notation develops spatial awareness to such a degree that it makes a measurable difference in adults. A child learning music will therefore develop key cognitive skills and acquire a new language.

Musical training also confers psychological and social benefits. Playing music in a group requires close, non-verbal coordination with others. Following the lead of a conductor, drummer or pianist takes razor-sharp focus and also builds habits of cooperation. For string and wind players, blending the sound of your instrument with the sound of the group is a skill that takes humility, patience and fundamentally, love. Music can also be used as a kind of therapy Music therapists use it to build resilience, encourage expression and address anxiety. It shouldn’t surprise us that something so fundamental to the human story should have all these benefits. It should surprise that so many parents don’t take advantage of them for their kids.

What about Adults?

You might be getting the impression that this is all child’s play. You might also think that if you missed the boat as a child, it’s too late to learn and you shouldn’t even bother to learn a musical instrument. Nothing could be further from the truth. Adult learners can experience exactly the same benefits to brain health and cognition that we listed above in relation to children. But researchers continually come across surprising discoveries about the unique benefits that musical training offers to adult learners. These include stress relief, ameliorating the effects of aging and increasing overall emotional well-being.

Playing music also lends itself to forming new social connections and new avenues for community. Amateur music ensembles and groups provide a great way to broaden your social life and can even be used as an alternative source of income. You have even more reason to learn a musical instrument if you are the parent of a child who is learning one. Parents who supervise children’s homework improve their school performance. In the same way, parents who get involved in music practice at home put their children ahead of the pack.

Where to Begin?

Well begun is half done. Before you even choose an instrument you need to have a rough idea of what your goal is. This might evolve over time – in fact it probably will – but you need to start somewhere. Wanting to improve your quality of life and connect with people is a perfectly valid goal. In fact, that seems to be a more important aspiration than passing music exams or having a “career in music”. Music is an end in itself, it justifies itself, no excuses needed.

For both children and adults, the best place to start is on a keyboard instrument. This could be an electronic keyboard or an acoustic piano. These instruments have a simple, visual layout that makes it easy for the mind to apprehend concepts such as pitch. Another good instrument to introduce early on is the recorder.

Do I Need a Teacher?

During the 2020 lockdown, many people realised just how difficult it is to try to educate their own children. To try to teach them a skill that you don’t have is doubly difficult. Children learn in large part through imitation, so it is essential for a child to have access to a musician’s knowledge and skills. Choosing a teacher is an important decision that requires a great deal of thought on your part.

When it comes to adults, the answer to this question is less straightforward than you might think. While there is no doubt that you need guidance, you can actually achieve a great deal on your own. Some people are naturally autodidacts while others really need the discipline and accountability that comes with a teacher-student relationship. In the age of Internet and connectivity, you can be selective about exactly what kind of teacher you want. You can connect with teachers around the world and find a way to integrate lessons into your life affordably and without stress.

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