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.

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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Comments (11)
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  • Tom S says:

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

  • Carmen Alegria says:

    I would like to read a book by Albert Ein­stein.

  • girlbros says:

    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?

    • Arash Tarafar says:

      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 first!):n‑8%27%273%2520-%252011%2520-%2520Added%2520Bonus%253A%2520Interview%2520with%2520author%2520Amy%2520Alkon%2520%25288%253A12%2529.mp4

  • trim says:

    As a pro­fes­sion­al musi­cian that learnt auto­di­dac­ti­cal­ly in my ear­ly teens, I find peo­ple blam­ing their lack of teach­ers, lessons, mon­ey or parental sup­port to be most lame. If pas­sion did­n’t get you going you prob­a­bly were gonna make real­ly bor­ing music to begin with, harsh but true.

  • Dave Grandel says:

    I half agree with “Trim” about pas­sion and learn­ing… I always tell my stu­dents [and their par­ents where applic­a­ble] that if they real­ly want to play, they’ll play! I taught myself to play gui­tar after years of denial by my moth­er who insist­ed that I take piano lessons. I was TERRIBLE at piano, and rarely prac­ticed [do you see a pat­tern here?] with­out rompt­ing from Mom, but my pas­sion for gui­tar nev­er dimmed! Final­ly, when I was 14, she bought me a gui­tar and I bought the amp. I still use them both in my gui­tar stu­dio and they are 34 years old!

    Brain drain usu­al­ly occurs when we are try­ing to do too much , too fast… I expe­ri­ence it when I run up against some­thing that I can­not play and have to dis­sect the score just to make sense of the tim­ing! [Phil Keag­gy’s “Coun­ty Down” is a fine example…look it up on YouTube, you won’t be dis­ap­point­ed!] This is my own fail­ing at hav­ing nev­er active­ly pur­sued lessons with some­one who could show me these things. Now that I teach, I am that per­son who has to impart this kind of info to begin­ner and inter­me­di­ate stu­dents alike, so I need to be pre­pared. Some­times I am not, but I per­se­vere and usu­al­ly am ready long before they are…

    The only way to tru­ly avoid brain drain is to be con­tin­u­al­ly hon­ing and refin­ing your abil­i­ties. Chal­lenge your­self… Get out of your com­fort zone… PLAY with oth­ers! You can learn so much by observ­ing what oth­er play­ers do!

    Good luck and keep prac­tic­ing!

    p.s. Read “The Prac­tice Rev­o­lu­tion” by Philip John­ston. It’s a game chang­er, real­ly!

  • Charles M Lines says:

    I was behind at school until a start­ed play­ing an instru­ment (the cor­net). Then my mind woke up: I start­ed get­ting good results across the board and suc­ceed­ed in pass­ing enough A lev­els to go to Music School, where I gained a BA (Hons.) in Music. So, thanks music for every­thing! I have always believed that music can help us in many ways, for exam­ple being more cre­ative. I explore this reg­u­lar­ly here:

  • Frank Ludwig says:

    video should be dai­ly manda­to­ry view­ing for school admin­is­tra­tors and year­ly view­ing for all par­ents with chil­dren in school. I would­n’t both­er send­ing it to politicians…not enough brain function…unfortunately they con­trol the purse strings

  • Dave Peterson says:

    At age 27 I am tak­ing bas­soon lessons. I am doing it for fun. I taught myself to play the bas­soon in high school. I wom­’t set the world on fire, but I am begin­ning to actu­al­ly like prac­tic­ing. My teacher is an instruc­tor at our local uni­ver­si­ty. He hap­pens to be great.

  • Dave Peterson says:

    Cor­rec­tion — my age is 72 not 27.

  • Thomas Black says:

    The left brain/right brain metaphor is a nice way to dumb down real sci­ence, but it’s not entire­ly true and we all need to stop per­pet­u­at­ing this myth.

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