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

  • 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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