Playing an Instrument Is a Great Workout For Your Brain: New Animation Explains Why

Get me a piano teacher, stat!

When I was a child, my father, enchanted by the notion that I might someday provide live piano accompaniment to his evening cocktails, signed me up for lessons with a mild-mannered widow who—if memory serves—charged 50¢ an hour.

Had I only been forced to practice more regularly, I’d have no trouble remembering the exact price of these lessons. My memory would be a supremely robust thing of beauty. Ditto my math skills, my cognitive function, my ability to multitask.

Instead, my dad eventually conceded that I was not cut out to be a musician (or a ballerina, or a tennis whiz…) and Mrs. Arnold was out a pupil.

Would that I stuck with it beyond my halting versions of “The Entertainer” and “Für Elise.” According to the TED-Ed video above, playing an instrument is one of the very best things you can do for your brain. Talent doesn’t matter in this context, just ongoing practice.

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Neuroscientists using fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and PET (Positron Emission Tomography) technology to monitor the brain activity of subjects listening to music saw engagement in many areas, but when the subjects traded in headphones for actual instruments, this activity morphed into a grand fireworks display.

(The animated explanation of the interplay between various musically engaged areas of the brain suggests the New York City subway map, a metaphor I find more apt.)

This massive full brain workout is available to anyone willing to put in the time with an instrument. Reading the score, figuring out timing and fingering, and pouring one’s soul into creative interpretation results in an interoffice cerebral communication that strengthens the corpus calossum and executive function.

 Vindication for drummers at last!

Though to bring up the specter of another stereotype, stay away from the hard stuff, guys…don’t fry those beautiful minds.

If you’d like to know more about the scientific implications of music lessons, WBUR’s series “Brain Matters” has a good overview here. And good luck breaking the good news to your children.

Related Content:

Watch a New Music Video Shot Entirely Within an MRI Machine

TED-Ed Brings the Edginess of TED to Learning

“Hummingbird,” A New Form of Music Notation That’s Easier to Learn and Faster to Read

Ayun Halliday is an author, homeschooler, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday


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  1. Tom S says . . . | August 1, 2014 / 4:15 pm

    Dancing requires both motor skills and listening to music. I wonder if the benefits of dancing would be similar to playing an instrument.

  2. Carmen Alegria says . . . | August 1, 2014 / 10:07 pm

    I would like to read a book by Albert Einstein.

  3. girlbros says . . . | August 14, 2014 / 10:49 pm

    I have played music my entire life, I am lucky to say, and I now work as a composer in film and television. My process when I score a tv show is that I played ‘in real time’ to the picture/scene, and in most cases I will play many parts, and more than one instrument. I have found that my brain is exhausted by this, especially when I am up against deadlines….etc. that demand that I work 10,12, 15… Hours a day, for several days in a row. My body gets tired too, and has it’s own set of woes, but my brain is so drained by this process all I want to do is nothing! I often say I need brain space! nThere are other things that happen too. The closest analogy I can think if right now would be RAM in a computer getting bogged down and a bottle neck of synapses and blood leads to a need to restart! nThis usually happens when I am trying something repeatedly. At first the repeatition makes the performance get better, and then it gets worse and worse. Time to ReSet!nAnybody go through this?

  4. Arash Tarafar says . . . | August 23, 2014 / 2:36 am

    Can’t you just take quick naps between your performance times?nI heard its quite useful in an interview between my professor and a writer (professor Barbara Oakley is my “Learning” professor)…nnHere’s a link if you’re interested (you must be a member of coursera.org first!):nhttps://d28rh4a8wq0iu5.cloudfront.net/learning/recoded_videos/Amy_Alkon.e51fdaa015ed11e4a6dbdbc226e96545.mp4?response-content-type=application%2Foctet-stream&a=1&response-content-disposition=attachment%3B%20filename%3D%223%2520-%252011%2520-%2520Added%2520Bonus%253A%2520Interview%2520with%2520author%2520Amy%2520Alkon%2520%25288%253A12%2529.mp4%22%3B%20filename%2A%3DUTF-8%27%273%2520-%252011%2520-%2520Added%2520Bonus%253A%2520Interview%2520with%2520author%2520Amy%2520Alkon%2520%25288%253A12%2529.mp4

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