Brain Benefits of Playing Instruments

father and son playing music togetherOne of my biggest inspirations was my late father, Laurence Sisson. He supported our family as a painter, primarily water color paintings of New England nature scenes. His work ethic was insane as was his creative genius. But my most salient memories of him are not those spent in the art studio watching beautiful representations of nature’s glory appear before my eyes. No, what I remember most are the evenings spent around the piano.

He was also a great jazz pianist, and often took paying work as a musician when the times demanded it. During holidays, he’d play the classics. On quiet afternoons, he’d noodle on the keys. Piano music was the backdrop of the house. And, I’m convinced, playing that piano kept his brain nimble to the very end.

Music and Brain Function

If you spend any time at all on social media, you’ve probably seen the videos of otherwise unresponsive Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease patients lighting up when a favorite piece of music from their younger days plays.

There’s this one, where an old man in a nursing home on his last legs comes to life. After listening to some of his favorite music, he becomes incredibly responsive, answering questions about himself and his life. Music gives him access to the parts of his brain that were previously shut out, at least for a brief moment.

The most recent one I saw is of a former New York City prima ballerina with Alzheimer’s disease. When she hears “Swan Lake,” she motions to raise the volume and then launches into the choreography from her chair—the same dance she mastered and performed over 50 years prior.  Even as I’m writing this and picturing it, I feel tears welling up from the beauty of the moment.

Most of you reading this aren’t in that dire of a cognitive situation, but you can probably relate to the effect music can have on our brains. We’ve all felt the power of music. When that song comes on and catapults you back to some bygone era of your youth. When you hear an album and actually smell the smells, taste the tastes, and feel the emotions it evokes in you. Something powerful is happening in the brain, and we shouldn’t wait til degeneration sets in.

If we know there are certain lifestyle, dietary, and behavioral modifications that can improve the outlook of a patient with dementia, then enacting those changes before dementia arises will be even more powerful and effective at staving it off. Music is one possibility.

And if merely listening to music can have that effect on cognitive function, even severely degenerated cognitive function, what can playing music—creating it with your own mind—do for it?

Playing an Instrument for Brain Health

We actually have evidence that playing an instrument is protective of brain health and function.

In one recent study, researchers asked 23 former orchestral musicians if they or any musician they knew had dementia. Dementia rates among the queried musicians were nonexistent, nor did any of them know other musicians who had the disease.1

Another study found that among older cognitively intact adults, those with a history of musical training had better episodic memory scores.2 Those who could read music had better episodic memory and better semantic verbal fluency. Notably, researchers controlled for IQ, so this wasn’t just an intelligence test.

Another earlier study had similar results, finding that older adults with at least 10 years history as a musician performed better on a battery of cognitive tests than those with no experience.3 They didn’t control for IQ but they did control for education attainment, which is a decent barometer of intelligence (though exceptions definitely exist).

What about more direct trials? Can we show that playing instruments can actually elicit changes to the brain’s function?

Recent research shows that music practice, which forces our brains to work in a completely different way than normal waking reality, is an important contributor to neural plasticity. Even just two weeks of piano practice elicits neuroanatomical changes to the auditory cortex in non-musicians.4 It can also reduce or prevent the age-related degradation of Broca’s area, a section of the brain partially responsible for speech production that’s often damaged in dementia.5 The same protective effect has been seen in the auditory cortex, which controls speech recognition among other things, of aging musicians.6 All these changes spell big potential benefits for people with age-related cognitive dysfunction, but there are also benefits for younger brains too.

Research has found that children who engage in musical training show increases in IQ, verbal 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.78910 This doesn’t prove that playing instruments changes the brain or improves its function, but it’s quite suggestive.

Playing an Instrument to Hit Flow State

Flow doesn’t happen when you struggle. It doesn’t happen when you trip over your own fingers or have to concentrate so hard you start sweating and stressing.  Flow happens when you know the material and the instrument so well that you fuse with it and become one. When you lose yourself in the music and all sense of time. If you’re learning an instrument, you probably won’t reach flow very reliably. To trigger a flow state, you should play something you’re good at. Something that you can lose yourself in, whether that’s a Chopin prelude or a simple hand drum beat. It all depends on your skill level.

But hitting that flow state is one of the major brain benefits of playing an instrument. It’s instant mindfulness, where you turn off the churning brain for once and simply exist in the present moments as they unfold. If you’ve wanted to meditate but haven’t had any luck with typical sitting meditation, get to a place where you can groove or jam or play on an instrument for an extended period of time.

Playing an Instrument to Reduce Stress

One of the biggest impediments to brain function is chronic stress. A little stress can help—if anything, acute spikes in stress hormones like adrenaline or cortisol can momentarily heighten cognition and awareness. But chronic elevation of these hormones destroys cognition. Studies show that playing music can reduce stress levels.11  Furthermore, anything that gets you into the flow state will lower stress, almost as a rule. I could elaborate with even more extensive citations, but instead I’ll tell you about the drums.

I might not be that good, but man is my electric drum kit I keep in the office a stress release. I put earbuds in, fire up a rock song on my iPad, then put the headphones to the drum kit over that, and wail away for an hour and a half almost every night. A legend in my own mind (the only mind that matters). If you walked into the room while I was doing this, all you would hear is Pita pit a pitta TapTap softly. But inside the headphones, I’m killing it. Highly recommended.

Playing an Instrument for Happiness

No, that isn’t sexy. It’s not going to sell any online e-courses. You won’t get clout and “happy” can’t be quantified, even if you start citing neurochemicals. But happiness is . When you boil things down, most people will name “be happy” as a major long-term goal. It’s not everything, you need meaning and drive and a mission as well, but moment-to-moment happiness really does matter for brain health.

Playing an Instrument Is Magic

If magic exists, music fits the bill. It can change your emotions on a dime. It can conjure up vivid memories, even those previously calcified and inaccessible via normal modes of cognition. It can capture and even alter the energy of the room. It makes people move their bodies without realizing or wanting it. Music can’t be touched or felt, only heard; it’s real but intangible, abstract but verifiable. And if you are making the music and wielding the instrument, you become the magician.

Whatever you do, don’t wait any longer. Pick up that instrument you’ve been thinking about and get after it. Over the last few years I’ve picked up the piano and have been dabbling in the drums, but man, there’s a HUGE difference between trying to learn at my age and trying to learn as a kid. You want to talk about compound interest, learning music (or any skill, really) as a child is a relatively small initial investment that quickly accumulates value. And most importantly, it never loses value. You learn the thing when your brain is still physically developing and the thing becomes embedded in the physical structure of your brain. It’s almost impossible to forget a skill like that. I wish I had that with music. If you have that opportunity, take it.

Do you play any instruments? How has it affected your brain health, as far as you can tell?

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

30 thoughts on “Brain Benefits of Playing Instruments”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. I took piano lessons for several years as a young child. My mom’s idea, not mine. I think I was maybe 5 at the time. I detested having to practice while my friends were outside playing. She eventually let me drop the lessons, and the piano was sold.
    Now, many years later, I sometimes wish I had stuck with it, but not often. I can still read music, and I could probably pick out a simple tune on a piano. I could easily pick it up again, but the motivation isn’t strong. I’d just as soon listen to music made by others versus my own pathetic efforts.
    Moral of the story: Don’t force a musical instrument on your kids at too young an age. Wait until they display an interest. Otherwise, you might be wasting your money.

    1. I totally agree with the problem, Skeezix, but I think the solution is actually to stop restricting the way that kids play instruments. Only adults could find a way to make something as amazing as music lame for a child. Piano teachers make kids play 3 Blind Mice to learn the major scale. I think that learning an instrument should work the other way. Start with songs that kids like and backfill theory as kids get interested. I’m another early piano quitter. Mercifully. I rediscovered music in college, and it’s a huge part of my sanity now. I do wish I hadn’t quit, and I think I wouldn’t have quit if someone had said, “here’s how you play ‘Hey Jude’,” and then I could have figured out the technical details of why that song is so great when I got curious about it.

      1. Absolutely. I too wanted to play the popular stuff, but my music teacher had me learning things like Fur Elise (Beethoven). As an adult I like classical music, but not many kids do. The recitals were a nightmare for me. As a shy, introverted grade schooler, sometimes I would throw up before a recital–another reason my mother finally let me quit.

        Neither of my two kids expressed an interest in learning to play an instrument. Based on my own miserable experiences, I didn’t push it.

        1. Skeezix, just to let you know we let our son play the songs he wanted. His dad could work out how to play them on the piano or guitar. He almost talked him out of “giving a show” at school in about the 3rd or 4th grade but decided not to and took the guitar and AMP to his school. His friends, in his “group/band” that were supposed to be up there in front with him, all chickened out but he got up and put on the show like a rock star. When the chorus came around all the kids knew and loved the song as well, so he said “everybody sing” so the all joined in singing with him. It was amazing and fun. What music was meant to be, cringe-worthy if you need perfection, but all the kids had fun. And we, the parents, learned a lot that day.
          When he was little kid, as soon as he could stay awake late enough he’d get up on the stage with the band his dad was in to play the last song on his little Costco acoustic guitar, just strumming along like the band. Got used to standing on a stage before thousands of people. Plus, made for some fun photos to view now that he’s a grumpy teen that’s only interested in tech. LOL

    2. Wow, totally relate to both Skeezix and Sam! I too was a youngster when my parents had me take lessons. Although I’ve always loved music, I tolerated the lessons and recitals for about 6 years; even competing in district and national auditions. I gave it up for the same reasons Skeezix mentioned: wanted to play outside with my friends! Fast forward 30+ years, and I bought my own piano to start playing again (although no lessons). Life got in the way and I ended up selling it a few years ago (I’m 62) to downsize. I wasn’t playing it much anyway, so sold it to a young, aspiring pianist.
      That said … I look back and value those (sometimes) grueling lessons. It taught me to cherish and appreciate music. My tastes are very eclectic and I couldn’t imagine a day without music; it’s like air and water to me.

      1. These days a good piano, organ and/or synthesizer can come in the form of a digital keyboard, which is pretty much immune to downsizing concern. My main instrument is steel-string guitar — definitely a compact instrument — but my harmonicas take up even less space. Voice takes no space at all. Make music; the rewards are endless!

  2. I don’t want to overstate it, but music has kept me sane during the pandemic. I’ve been recording multiple tracks in garageband and videoing myself in iMovie to make some music videos with me on multiple instruments, and it is a flow state like almost nothing else I’ve experienced.

  3. My mother-in-law had Alzheimer’s and was at the stage where she no longer remembered anyone’s name. When I took her to a church service at her care center she sang with all her heart. She didn’t remember that a hymnal was read differently than a book but she sang anyway even if her words did not match anyone else’s words.

  4. From my own mostly non-professional but fairly intensive long-term musical experience (guitar and upright bass in jazz ensembles, and classical guitar) I find that regular work on an instrument brings considerable mental clarity in all areas of life (bolstered appropriately by LCHF eating). Having more than one intellectual pursuit also seems to “cross-train” the brain, and boosts its ability to handle ambiguity and develop a “metaphorical” approach to creativity in general.

  5. I can relate to the miserable piano experience as a child. I wanted to play the guitar but mum thought it was vulgar. I sang in choirs although have never had the voice to be a soloist. In teacher’s college I finally found guitar but never had the time to do more than folk strumming to accompany songs. The kids liked it though. I finally learned some classical guitar at sixty. I got to grade 5 and it was a joy. I thought that when I retired I would go further but life had other plans. Long story short I became a plain air painter and it is there that I enter that “flow state” Mark mentions. I still sing, (to myself), and music still flows through my mind. I enter my eightieth year nest week and I’m almost totally deaf, hence I cannot listen to music and have not for many years, but my mind is full of song. I paint most days. I have just finished building a small boat, a coastal camp cruiser, from which I will explore all those quiet wonderful nooks and crannies that are otherwise inaccessible. I regret my loss of music, but have found solace in painting and fine woodwork. I am a blessed and fortunate man.

    1. Good for you, Ross! There are numerous ways other than music to find one’s groove.

  6. Took up the harmonium in June, then my house burned down and I lost everything in the southern Oregon fires in Sept. Just ordered another harmonium that should be here soon. Can’t wait! It soothes my soul.

    1. Nocona, I’m sorry for your loss, those fires did a lot of damage. We here in the NW Oregon got your smoke, they even closed my work for a few days, and they “never” close unless it’s extreme. Again, I’m sorry for the great losses.

      1. Thank you, that means a lot. I had less than 3 minutes to get out, but at leasti have my life. No replacing that!

  7. Great article – forwarding to several people. After a year of piano as a kid, I’ve been playing (self-taught) diatonic harmonica for ~ 45 years- well enough that I played in opening acts for Johnny Winter, Leon Russell, Delbert McClinton and others. Competed in the international Blues competition in Memphis 3 times. Can’t imagine a life without playing music.

  8. I bought myself a ukulele about 7 or 8 years ago and tried to teach myself to play. I would get into it for a month or so, then put it down for a few years. Then finally pick it back up, forget everything I previously learned, and have to start all over again.
    Fast forward to this plandemic, and now I’m playing almost daily. I use Google and YouTube to find songs to teach myself and just get lost in it for an hour or so…it’s great! Of course, I like to say the only thing worse than my playing is the singing that accompanies it…lol

    1. I too bought a ukulele about 2 years ago and tried to play some songs using YouTube teachers…”Aint She Cute” being my best! I practised most days for about 6 months and then went overseas for three weeks and haven’t picked it up since..about 18 months. After reading this article I’m going to start practising again everyday as it was fun for me to sing along as I played…maybe not for others in the room!

    2. I also bought a ukulele about 7 years ago! Perhaps because I was already a piano player but I found it incredibly easy to learn. Now I dabble with it every now and then.

  9. In high school I suffered from serious mental issues and anxiety that I later learned were PTSD, OCD, and bipolar disorder.

    At age 17 I was given for my birthday an electric guitar and amp. Now 24 years later I still play every day, and it’s helped me so much with dealing with stress and anxiety.

    Of course discovering functional medicine and ancestral health was critical – they helped me 100% overcome panic attacks and bipolar symptoms and to get off all psychiatric drugs that I took for years.

  10. I’m a classical pianist and STRONGLY disagree with the assertion that you have to play something you know well to trigger a state of flow. Learning a short, difficult new passage gets me in a flow state unlike anything else.

    1. I agree Margaret! I often play pieces on the piano I don’t know all that well and achieve such a good flow state!!

  11. I learned violin and some piano when young and often think I should get back to playing my violin.

    I think our schools do a disservice by only teaching young people orchestral and band instruments. If they taught piano or guitar, people would have a skill that would be useful throughout life and more easily integrated into people’s lives.

  12. In a funeral service at my church, a member told us how she could tell the deceased, who was totally nonverbal at the time of her visit with him, did not like or wasn’t interested in the helm she was playing on the piano. When she switched to playing old helms, the deceased sang (yes, he sang) ALL of the stanzas of each helm she played. The music was still there just waiting to get out!

  13. Old jazz lover is still hoping for a download of some of your father’s jazz playing??

  14. I’ve played the piano my whole life and I can entirely relate to 100% of what you talked about. When I play, I am transported to another world. All my worries, cares, and thoughts melt away and it’s just me and the music. You said music can’t be felt but man, do I feel it. Such a beautiful thing music is and even better when you can play it yourself. And it most certainly becomes muscle memory that never fades. I once didn’t play the piano for about 3 years and came back to it like no time had passed at all. Quite amazing.

  15. There’s a price to be paid for musical excellence. It’s being alone in a room with a piano (or other instrument) and a metronome while your friends are playing outside.
    Try to find a way to incorporate your friends into your music habit…so many lessons to be learned (about life) by playing music together.

  16. I’m 65 years old and started playing drums when I was 8. I pretty much gave it up at age 30 and came back to it about a year ago. It took a little practice (but not too much) to get back to being a decent drummer but what I am most pleased with is how good it makes me feel. I started learning new grooves and fills just out of desire and it really is good for the brain. I don’t know how I let it go for so long. Drumming, if done the way I do it is a good workout too. It gets my heart rate up, makes me sweat a little and I use it now instead of walks for my daily moderate exercise. I remember growing up playing drums that they were a great release when I was upset or angry. You could really take out your emotions on drums. They also were great for playing when you feel good… a feeling of accomplishment and, you get some nice compliments. I go out of my way now to learn things that are complicated just to stretch the brain. Like anything, if you are new to an instrument (and you practice regularly) you will find some long stretch’s where you don’t seem to make any progress… just stop practicing for 2 or 3 days and when you come back to it you find that you have mastered the stuff you have been working so hard at. And that is a fantastic feeling.

  17. You did a great job of helping me understand what “Flow” is and how it can be similar to meditation. The fact that instruments can help you achieve this makes me think that this could be my new hobby since my family has told me that I need to find a way to calm myself down and destress a lot. With that said, I’ll get started by looking for any place that can provide me with piano lessons right away.