Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
22 Oct

Making Music: Why You Should Pick Up an Instrument and Start Playing

DjembeIn previous posts, I’ve spoken about the need to participate in innately human acts, those behaviors that seem to persist across cultures and languages and through space and time. To me, such universality implies importance and, perhaps, necessity. Why do humans from all places and all times dance or make tools or produce art if not to satisfy some Primal need that goes beyond tooth and claw survival? Today, I present to you another universal cultural constant deserving of our attention and participation: music.

Most people enjoy listening to music. Even if they don’t, even if someone isn’t the type to keep up with the latest bands or always have something playing in the background, there’s always that one song that gets them. The Beatles, for example. Who doesn’t like them? Anyway, listening to music has a number of positive physiological effects on us as I’ve discussed in a previous post, including reducing stress, providing dopamine hits (which we interpret as “getting the chills”) to our brain’s pleasure centers, and boosting motivation during exercise. What about the health effects of making and playing music? After all, someone has to play it.

Most of the research into the health effects of music playing focus on the brain, and for good reason: the brain is doing most of the work! The static model of the brain is dead, supplanted by the plastic model which shows that as we learn new things and think new thoughts, the anatomy of our brain – and its capabilities – changes. Recent research shows that music practice, which forces our brains to work in a completely different way, is an important contributor to neural plasticity. Even just two weeks of piano practice elicits neuroanatomical changes to the auditory cortex in non-musicians. It can also reduce or prevent the age-related degradation of Broca’s area, a section of the brain partially responsible for speech production. The same protective effect has been seen in the auditory cortex, which controls speech recognition among other things, of aging musicians.

Music training may enhance brain plasticity in other areas of the brain as well; other research has found that children who engage in musical training show increases in IQverbal memory, and linguistic ability, even when the control group is composed of kids with otherwise similar backgrounds (socioeconomic status, academics, etc) except for the music training.

That’s all well and good, but the primary benefit to playing an instrument is that it just makes you feel good. It’s obvious, even though I haven’t really played much since the sax, flute, and clarinet back in school, that playing music is fun. Just look at what it’s called: playing. 

Oh, and if you want a study to prove that playing music makes you feel good, I’ve got one. Last year, researchers found that playing an instrument (the drums), singing, or dancing all cause endorphin release (as shown by an increase in post-performance pain tolerance and, I’d guess, the presence of big old smiles). Merely listening to the same music did not have the same effect. You had to actively participate, either in its creation or through dance. Performing music also increased positive affect, helping participants feel enthusiastic, energetic, confident, active, and alert.

I believe it. I’ve gone down to the Venice Beach drum circle on Sundays just to vibe out. That’s where people from all walks of life (albeit with considerable representation from the hemp clothing-wearing demographic) hit the sand right around noon to jam. You’ll have rich entrepreneurs, dropouts, Rastas, addicts, tourists, surfers, day laborers, kids, sportos, motorheads, geeks, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, militant vegans, Crossfitters, soccer moms, and hipsters all banging on drums (or empty water jugs), shaking tambourines (or their tushes). Between dancers and drummers, the participant-to-spectator ratio is far higher than most other events, and that contributes a lot to the energy of the circle. By the time dusk hits, the circle has grown, and the beat changes organically. You’ll have different beats going on all over the circle, but somehow it meshes and blends. It’s very Primal. Feels like something straight out of Grok’s life. Highly recommended if you’re ever in the area.

I’m thinking we set up a drum circle for the next PrimalCon. What do you think?

Forget about all those health benefits supported by links to studies for a minute and consider how music affects you and those around you:

Think about how singing little ditties that you just made up on the spot using mostly nonsense words sends your four month old into the upper echelons of joy complete with ear splitting toothless grin.

Think about how tribal shamanic drumming can induce hallucinogenic, mystical states in those who listen to it.

Think about all those memories that are inextricably linked to the songs you listened to when those memories were being formed, and how you can relive the feelings you felt simply by listening to (or even thinking about) the songs.

Think about how you feel when you hear that song. You know, that song.

So music has power. You know that by listening to it and feeling what it does to you and by seeing the effect it has on others. Now imagine what it must feel like to wield that power, even just for an instant until you fall off beat and have to pick it back up, even if your only audience is yourself or an illiterate infant, even if you’re just jamming on a beach at midnight in front of open flames and wine bottles.

Oh, I almost forgot! There’s another benefit to playing music. For many people, picking up an instrument also means facing down a fear. Putting yourself out there, even if it’s just playing an unfamiliar instrument in front of people in a totally informal setting, can be really, really scary. It’s good to do things that scare you, whether it’s give a best man speech, ask that girl out, or pick up a guitar. It’s throwing yourself out into the uncomfortable unknown where you might mess up, make a fool of yourself, or be forced to admit that you’re not good at something. That last one is really tough for me and, I suspect, for many of you.

Okay, you’re convinced of the benefits and interested in obtaining some. To make it easier, I’d suggest picking up a relatively simple, easy to learn instrument that appeals to you, maybe off of Craigslist to reduce costs. Here are a few options. Be sure you listen to music made with the instrument before pulling the trigger:

  • Djembe – a West African hand drum
  • Ukelele – a guitar-like instrument with four strings, making it easier for beginners
  • Penny whistle – a simple woodwind instrument that hails from the British isles
  • Recorder – another simple woodwind instrument
  • Your own voice – singing is the oldest, most accessible way to make music

Once you’ve chosen an instrument, simply google “how to play [your instrument].” Look for free lessons on Youtube. Find a local drum circle or jam session on Pay for lessons. Or just play around and have fun. Just play, whatever you do.

You know, I haven’t told many people this, but it’s on my bucket list to get good enough at the piano to make $50 in tips playing at a dive bar somewhere. I think I’ll see about doing that now. How about you?

What say you, readers? Who plays an instrument? Why do you do it? Have you noticed any of the benefits mentioned in this post? And what would you recommend to beginners?

Thanks for reading! Take care and Grok on!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Tenor Saxophone. Just picked it up again after a small (35yr or so) break. Feeling better, playing some simple tunes. Will let ya know of any long term benefits if I ever see em :)

    Night wrote on October 22nd, 2013
  2. If you’re down on your luck and broke,,, you can go to the VB Drum Circle & get a smoke!

    Bill Berry wrote on October 22nd, 2013
    • Since “Bill Berry” was the drummer for REM, and is a very innovative percussionist, I’m going to take your advice.

      Duncan wrote on October 22nd, 2013
  3. Tips for those wanting to learn an instrument from a veteran: Do not make it a chore, make it the thing you want to do while you are doing your chores. I love music, I love making it even more. I really don’t comment, spam, or promote my music at all but if you’d wanna give my new song a listen and give some feedback that would be awesome. If you do give it a listen I hope you know that while I am playing I am at my absolute happiest, and I hope I can pass that on to you.

    Adam Chevalier wrote on October 22nd, 2013
    • agree 100% !!!

      like this:

      “while I am playing I am at my absolute happiest”

      here are my 2 cents

      wildgrok wrote on October 22nd, 2013
      • Not bad… But the cat didn’t seem to be all that impressed.

        I guess I can show off mine now:

        Problem is, you can clearly see in that video that even though I’ve lost 100 lbs, I needed to lose 150 (that last 50 is proving to be very stubborn, but it’s still better than being over 350 lbs…)

        Howard Lee Harkness wrote on October 22nd, 2013
        • Agree, that cat is very picky, very difficult to impress

          wildgrok wrote on October 23rd, 2013
  4. My Father suffered from COPD, primarily caused by smoking, and had some serious emphysema. Singing in his Church choir not only brought a full smile to his face like almost nothing else, other than his Grandchildren – the controlled breathing was therapeutic. When I was a kid (I’m 50 now) he used to play piano while we all sang, something that a lot of families used to do. While I still have that love of music that he gave to me, simply listening to music, or going to see a band live, just isn’t the same. I have his Baby Grand Piano in storage, and this is just one more reason to break it out and start relearning how to play.

    Duncan wrote on October 22nd, 2013
  5. The Kazoo is a particularly easy instrument to master, although it is rather annoying . . . .

    Duncan wrote on October 22nd, 2013
  6. \m/

    daniel wrote on October 22nd, 2013
  7. Music teacher here. Play music. Or sing. Don’t worry about being able to read it. Just DO it.

    One of my favorite things to do is my Music Together classes – think little kids and caregivers, a sort of Mommy (or Daddy, or grandparent, or nanny – caregiver!)-and-me format. The HARDEST people to get out of their shells BY FAR are the adults! But when they do come out, when they do “let go” even for a little bit, whether it’s dancing or singing a round with the class or playing an instrument or throwing a scarf into the air with abandon with flowy music, you can see the kids AND the adults just GLOW with it.


    crunchymama wrote on October 22nd, 2013
    • yeah!

      wildgrok wrote on October 22nd, 2013
  8. Yes!

    I can relate to this, was fortunate to have a brother jazz musician who was my mentor. I played guitar and bass in groups while at school. At some time I dabbled with the alto sax, will return to it. It’s been several years of dedication to the piano and boogie-woogies, I can do some stuff!. For anyone interested check in amazon Blues Piano by Mark Harrison, incredible book if you are into this stuff
    There is nothing (well, almost) as at night sit in front of your weighted keyboard (have several), with the earphones and the mike and make a concert for yourself

    wildgrok wrote on October 22nd, 2013
  9. I definitely feel the extra motivation from music while working out, and if nothing else, at least my iPod drowns out the horrible stock radio tunes playing at LA Fitness. Does anyone actually listen to that?

    Adam wrote on October 22nd, 2013
    • Oh man, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I go to LA Fitness as well and their music is absolutely horrible. I couldn’t work out there w/out my iPod. And some songs definitely get me pumped up and make me push harder!! :)

      Beth wrote on October 23rd, 2013
  10. I’m a professionally trumpet player, (about 45 years so far) and I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t express my emotions through my music. I also taught instrumental music, both strings & band instruments for 35 years. The eyes, brain, lungs and soul all benefit from the challenges & joy of creating music. Try it everyone, you’ll love it!

    Doug wrote on October 22nd, 2013
  11. Mark, great post. I’m a violinist who plays in an orchestra, and I have often felt the same primal response when caught up in an intense passage as I do when I’m swimming in open water, or some other more understandably “primal” situation. There’s something about the combination of the physicality of moving my arms and fingers quickly over a sustained period, while having to concentrate simultaneously on the notes in front of me and the conductor’s directions in front, while also listening to my own sounds and those around me, and finally simply the auditory experience of the music flowing around me. It requires concentration and focus, and in the end is so rewarding. I think part of it is the “fear” factor, maybe of messing up? In open water (Lake Michigan for me), I’m always just a tinge afraid as I navigate the swells and time my breaths, and yet enjoying the sensation of the cold water, the feel of my muscles as I pull through, very primal. Somehow playing an instrument in an orchestra gives me a similar primal feel.

    Michelle wrote on October 22nd, 2013
  12. I’ve been playing the drums since I was a wee lad, and I can tell you that playing on the drumset is great as low cardio primal playing. You’re using all four limbs, training yourself to move in ways that feel awkward and clunky at first and you try to build speed and fluidity for more pleasing sounds.

    I wish I still had my set setup simply for the sheer fun of creating interesting noises. I can’t really attest to all of the brain stuff in any scientifically concrete manner, but I am head and shoulders more intelligent than most other folks (j/k).

    Adam wrote on October 22nd, 2013
  13. Played the piano as a kid – now I just play guitar hero with my kids – and I get the same feeling!

    kiwi wrote on October 22nd, 2013
  14. My atheist father put me in a Roman Catholic convent for three years, where the atmosphere, constrictions and superstition made me feel so emotionally claustrophobic, I would have screaming panic attacks in my efforts to drive everyone away and have more space to be. My punishment consisted of being put into solitary for the whole day, and I simply loved it! You see, the nuns chose the music room for my incarceration. I discovered a music primer in the piano seat and promptly taught myself to read music and play it on the piano. Well, one has to start somewhere!!!!
    I lost all but 4.5% of my hearing over the years, and no longer have a musical instrument to play. Somehow, though, I suspect drumming would be wonderfully therapeutic and I could ‘hear’ it through its primal rhythm and vibration, if in no other way.
    Thanks, Mark, for a really excellent post: I love MDA!

    Maracas wrote on October 22nd, 2013
  15. Join your local choir or chorus!!! Don’t worry about religion (no need to join the church if that’s not your scene) and community chorus would be the secular choice. Most choirs are just happy to have warm bodies and it is a wonderful experience!! We are always desperate for men!! Benefits: deep breathing, using your brain, hanging with awesome choir peeps and singing in harmony with other humans just rocks. (slightly biased professional musician)

    Stephanie wrote on October 23rd, 2013
  16. Been playing music since age 12, picked up a guitar and learned on my own by “ears”. I have an “absolute ear”, I can recognize the absolute pitch of notes. That helped a lot :) I also learned percussions, piano, singing, and the last years, composing. All on my own. I even built up a modest home recording studio and learned the basis of audio recording and editing using open-source softwares and semi-pro grade equipment. I started recoding a double-album (post-rock) stuff but I have 2 very young kids now, so it is on stand-by …

    I have played solo in bars some years back, to finance my studies at university. I was not that shy to start with but I lost shyness altogether with this experience. I am comfortable on a stage, but always excited to hear what is gonna come out of my fingers, how the audience will respond, etc. Definitely primal 😀

    La Frite wrote on October 23rd, 2013
  17. The mountain dulcimer gets my vote. Easy to pick up and learn. You can get a relatively inexpensive kit to make your own.

    Pirate Jeni wrote on October 23rd, 2013
  18. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about learning an instrument. I’m definitely not a natural when it comes to music, I have to work at it, but when I do, I do alright. I took keyboard lessons as a kid, and though I had to practice my butt off, when I got a song just right, it felt amazing. I remember getting that feeling the first time I nailed Fur Elise (a song that I love). That was a long time ago though, and I don’t even remember how to read music now. I read through the comments to get an idea of what I might want to try to learn, then Googled a few things to see how they sounded, how easy they might be to learn, etc. First I looked at the Recorder, then the Ukulele, then the Mandolin and finally the penny whistle. I say finally, because once I heard it, I knew that was the instrument I wanted to play. I love Celtic music, it feels like home to me. And it also doesn’t hurt that it’s an incredibly cheap instrument (hence the name, I’m sure!). I did a bit of searching on Amazon and ordered a highly rated penny whistle and learn to play manual/CD. With Amazon Prime, I’ll be learning to play by the weekend!
    Great article!! :)

    Beth wrote on October 23rd, 2013
  19. Most Saturdays at our fitness/dance studio I play drums for the Nia class. There is a tangible shift in the feeling in the room when you add drums to the mix!
    Live music is also able to change to meet the moment, whereas recorded music sometimes doesn’t ” fit” quite right.
    Also, playing hand drums for a couple hours is an amazing primal workout!

    Derek Dibbern wrote on October 23rd, 2013
  20. If you’re not musical (or think you’re not, or don’t have the patience or the cash to try), give dance a try! Playing music is dancing with your fingers, and dancing is making music with your body.

    I would bet the cognitive benefits are even better when music/dance is done in a group. I’m not a woo-woo kind of person and constantly struggle with the social/community components of the paleo lifestyle, but a good dance has a ton of energy between the musicians and the dancers, whether it’s death metal or ditsy-folk. It can be really intense and make you feel like you’re really part of something.

    If you hang out with musicians, you’ll notice that really good ones are usually humble, gracious with people who are learning, excited about other music/musicians, and constantly learning themselves. All good stuff that you learn along the way to becoming proficient as a musician.

    scooter wrote on October 23rd, 2013
  21. I am a professional musician, so obviously it means the world to me.

    Music can be the ultimate primal shared experience. I recommend engaging with music live, not solely relying on recordings or using music as background. Make music with friends and friends, learn to play an instrument, and go to live concerts. For those of us who seek sunlight and the outdoors, only experiencing artificial music (i.e. recorded through speakers) doesn’t make sense. It will not have the same effect. Also, seek out opportunities to enjoy silence -which is too rare! Quiet helps us to better appreciate music. A minor success for me was convincing my yoga teacher to get rid of her iPod, for example. Mindfulness is key to getting the full benefits of music/silence.

    Elizabeth wrote on October 23rd, 2013
  22. Being a music educator (band director doing my student teaching at a middle school right now) I can say that it’s awesomely relaxing to spend the entire day just playing music and teaching kids to do it too. Even when it’s frustrating, it’s still way cooler and more fun than a typical day job.

    Elizabeth wrote on October 23rd, 2013
  23. Ever since I saw the film “Pucker Up” I whistle a whole lot more. It is enjoyable and at least as primal as singing. I wonder how come no one had mentioned it yet.

    Erik Erosa wrote on October 23rd, 2013
  24. Not a coincidence I keep a guitar in my break room at the clinic…

    Dr. Anthony Gustin wrote on October 24th, 2013
  25. I totally agree that there is a huge endorphin release when you dance or play a musical instrument. I started playing the dumbek a couple of years ago and I find that not only does it make me feel good, it helps my brain focus and really makes me feel alive. It’s a great feeling.

    Tyler wrote on October 24th, 2013
  26. I tried picking up drumming at one point, just simple hand drums. But it mostly felt like a huge chore, learning endlessly the timing and hand to hand coordination and the patterns. I tried playing around with them too, but that didnt go nowhere and felt pointless. What did i do wrong?

    Mat wrote on October 25th, 2013
  27. This quote has been on my screen saver for more than 20 years. I wish I could remember who first said it.

    “We don’t sing because we’re happy. We’re happy because we sing. “

    Sid wrote on October 30th, 2013
  28. I’m a pretty serious cellist (I’m a teenager still) and I’ve been playing music for almost ten years. I come from a family of professional musicians, so I grew up in the environment. It’s hard to think of my life without it, so it’s a bit difficult to think of ways I’ve noticed it improve me in any way. However, I do think that it focuses the mind, and it teaches people how to think (if they use it correctly when practicing). The process of listening for/identifying the problem, figuring out how you’re going to go about fixing it, then actually fixing (practicing) it can be applied to many areas of life and it’s good to learn how to do that well when you’re young. A more clear reason it can be good is that it literally forces you to become better at managing your time – and in my family at least, that’s very important because we’re all VERY BUSY. It’s also just nice to have something you’re good at and can have fun with.


    ErzzY wrote on November 1st, 2013
  29. SO pleased to see so much reference to non-electronic instruments and presentation. Music through amps/ loudspeakers (whether huge and numerous as at most rock/pop concerts, or tiny in earbuds) is an artificial experience and very 2D. We garner so much more connection and energy through sharing live music with others using acoustic instruments including the voice. Love the drum circle concept!

    Stephen P Brown wrote on June 25th, 2014

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