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!

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.

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101 thoughts on “Making Music: Why You Should Pick Up an Instrument and Start Playing”

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    1. You’re an awesome mom for sending them to an alternative-school. I wish I had that kind of opportunity when I was a kid.

      I used to play guitar, but gave it up a long time ago. I’m listening to Metallica at this moment and miss playing!!!

  1. I don’t play an instrument (totally unmusical and can’t read music), but I do sing along to whatever is on the radio…. usually very badly out of tune!
    My children are all in the arts-based schooling stream – lots of music, lots of singing, dance….

    1. You think Grok could read music? Reading music is irrelevant (if not counter-productive) for 99% of music-making traditions on the planet.

      Just pick up an instrument or your voide and have fun, play around!

      In sime languages the word that nearest translates “musician” does not discriminate between music makers and listeners. Simply by listening to music you are a musician.

  2. I used to pretend I could play guitar. Lately I’ve been thinking of grabbing my old acoustic and starting again. This post is probably a sign I should just go for it.

    1. Yes, what a sign! I just started teaching myself guitar a week ago. It’s going pretty good. Another aspect of (lyrical) music is the power the message that you can put in it has.

      1. I’ve been playing guitar ever since I was 14 and still do years later. I love it. I feel like it helps me decompress and mentally tune out the problems of the world. It’s relaxing yet exercising the mind at the same time. Keep learning.

  3. From a personal perspective I can tell you that playing music is one of the most amazing feelings! I’ve read things here and there about how music has healing qualities.
    I’ve had back problems for much of my life, 2 surgeries in my 20’s…now feeling pretty good bodyweight training – focusing on total body, core, etc. This has happened multiple times…when I’ve had a small spasm or back issue and then end up playing a gig that night, I sometimes don’t even realize the next day that the pain is so much less or gone totally. Then I think back and wonder if it was the music??

    When I sing and play the guitar, it’s definitely therapeutic – but somehow doing it in front of people adds another dimension. Playing with other musicians and having a wow moment…sends serious chills through your body (you musicians know what i mean – it’s like a drug!).

    I honestly feel the need to play if I haven’t for a week or so…once again listen to Mark…try it…you’ll be hooked!

  4. Perfect timing! Rocksmith 2014 just came out today, a video game that can teach you to play guitar and bass!

    1. “Perfect timing! Rocksmith 2014 just came out today, a video game that can teach you to play guitar and bass!”

      I was about to say the same thing. I loved the first one (though some of its flaws were frustrating, like the cumbersome menu system), and this one promises to be much better. The first Rocksmith really helped me in learning guitar, and got me to a level that I would have never acheived otherwise. I’m downloading Rocksmith 2014 as I write this 🙂

  5. My motto the past few years has been “try new things”. Usually new things are scary to me, but I’ve created a lot of fun hobbies from this motto – crossfit, acro yoga, pole fitness, and pastels – each one scary in a different way. So I guess I will add drum circle to the try new things list. Or maybe karaoke?

  6. I played bass during high school and for a few years after. Managed to play some gigs. I had stage fright before the first time I went on and never afterwards. I’m dying to get back into a decent cover band that plays something I’ll enjoy but lately I’ve been doing karaoke at the bar around the corner from me Thursday nights. It’s a neighborhood bar, not a dedicated karaoke bar. The guy has a good selection of songs and is really cool. I don’t know if I have a “good” voice but it’s strong and I know enough about music that I’ve been doing a decent job. People are actually applauding for me and whatnot. Feels very good, very therapeutic. I may even look into singing for a band. 🙂

  7. Yes on the PrimalCon drum circle!
    And I encourage even those who think they can’t sing well to sing–it really can be learned, and since our laryngeal muscles atrophy with speech alone, it can take a while to build those back up to the point where you’re making a more beautiful tone, but it CAN be done. I had a voice teacher whose vocal theory was that our laryngeal muscles developed to make what we would call singing sounds–crying, laughing, wailing, moaning, etc., and what we have cultivated into singing. But speech doesn’t work those muscles, so SING!

    1. TY so much for that info–I was a trained opera singer in my late teens (voice matured very early) but I lost most of it in my early 20’s and never have gotten very much of it back. I really miss it; the thought that using it again consistently could help revive it was just what I needed on an otherwise really kreppy day. I still get complements when I DO bust loose, whether at ethnic music festivals, church etc.
      I envy you guitarists and keyboard players; I’m no good at anything requiring all the fingers on both hands to work together so I have much better luck playing one-handed instruments (French horn when I was a kid), or drumming. I have a bodhran I bought in Ireland that I whip out especially at the Irish festivals I go to; gives me good practice and everything else is loud enough to drown me out.
      My next musical project is to learn to play the autoharp–have one already that family has had forever. I saw a film that showed June Carter playing one plucking the strings like a guitar, forming the chords w/ the bars–amazing. Found a drum circle here in KC via Meetup (first found out about THAT here) who has members that give lessons so I may check that out. The voice that I have left fits best w/ folk/country/traditional—bottom line is that I have some hope again–if I’m not so depressed following a healthy eating plan is much easier.

  8. I’ve been playing the piano for decades, and it’s pretty thrilling to have an arena in mid-life where I’m still improving. I only returned to choral singing a few years ago, and it’s been amazing in itself (plus the synergy with the musical skills of the so-solo piano practice surprised me).

    Singing in a chorus has all kinds of crazy health benefits – they’ve found in older choral singers not only the expected improvement in measures like depression and cognition, but also immune response – and fewer falls, fewer medications, more independence for longer. Get out there and make a joyful noise, folks!

  9. My 3 children filled our home with music … guitar, violin and flute. Now they are gone to college without their instruments and our home was so silent…so now I sit with all the kids at our local music store to learn the guitar myself…sore fingers, lots of fret buzzes…..but having a riot….hoping soon I’ll be able to pick out a tune.

  10. Finally we get to something important on this site….avoiding gluten, eating fat, sprinting barefoot, all minor details! Music is where it’s at! Tim Ferriss outlined a great way to learn guitar a little while back. It’s pretty much how I learned 15 years ago but with worship music instead of rock/pop. Plus my 9 month old loves “singing” and banging on pianos, guitars, and of course drums. Keep the music flowing!

  11. I love the idea of a PrimalCon drum circle. I was wondering why we didn’t do one this year.

    Music definitely has a healing effect. Whenever I’ve had friends confined to a hospital bed, I’d call the hospital staff ahead of time to see if it was ok to come visit and play Celtic harp for the patient. Usually, the nurses also benefited from soothing music, too.

  12. My dad had a super rough childhood (his mom died by the time he was 9 and his dad died when he was 11, then he was given to a lady who abused him) so he began playing the snare drum, and all other percussion really, but the snare drum has always been his preference. His older brother did not, in fact he played no instrument. My dad is one of the most positive people I have ever met, most of the time (we all have our bad days). His brother is eternally disgruntled and upset at the world. I wonder how much of that had to do with my dad’s ability to escape into the drums, given that they were raised in an identical environment. He still plays in an old-man version of a drum line- the Pacific Alliance. It makes a lot of sense after reading this post. I myself can keep a good beat, can do some para-diddles and such, but am not extremely good at it. My dad had drummed with some of the best, and might be one of the best for all I know. The most I can do is sing aloud- not too horrifically. Yes, music is more than capable of lifting a person up.

    Case in point, I went to a Josh Groban concert at the beginning of the month and still can’t get over how it impacted me in a very physical way- like I could feel connected to all the people around me somehow. By the way, I am a HUGE Josh Groban fan, so that probably helps, but you get the idea. I wasn’t expecting that kind of connection/physical sensation at all, but it happened nonetheless. The most intense feeling like that was when he asked the audience to sing “You Raise Me Up” with him. It was pretty amazing, despite the fact that it’s a song I generally don’t enjoy because it’s been overplayed. If I think about it, I can still feel it- weird. Cool, but weird.

    I know this is long. Just a little bit more and I will be done. I would argue that most of the arts are capable of doing that though on one level or another. I write (writing a book now, in fact) and I know people who draw and paint and there is a lot of joy and freedom in that as well. Heck, I can’t draw or paint that well, but it doesn’t stop me from getting joy from doing it. Good times. Good post.

  13. Music and dance is part of my life, but more as a hobby. I’ve been taking belly dance lessons for about 4 years, and we have to be very aware of the music, because our bodies are the instruments. Our bodies interpret the music. We do play zills (finger cymbals) on occasion, as well. I’ll be 51 in November and plan to dance for a long, long time. I also love jammin’ out to rock live bands.

  14. Having played a brass instrument for the past 4 1/2 + decades since I turned 10, I am not sure what I would do if I couldn’t play. Being a data analyst by trade, it is a great outlet to haul my baritone/euphonium to practice each week. (It weighs about 35+ pounds in its case – Primal Law # 3 : lift heavy things!) I may have had a rough day in my cubicle or been tense from the traffic getting there, but when I leave rehearsal I feel like I have been energized. I currently play in a British style brass band, and feeling the audience’s response to a moving performance of a tough piece is almost electric. There’s something about being part of a 45-piece ‘tribe’ of talented brass and percusion musicians producing an integrated, balanced, and blended wall of sound to a receptive audience. I also do solo performances, and even though I have done this for several decades for a variety of audiences, my knees always shake. Not content with that, I also ring in an English handbell choir with 10 members. We each are responsible for 2 notes with their accidentals (sharps and flats) and we have to ring the bell at just the right moment in time when our ‘note’ comes along in the music. If not, it is like a record getting stuck or a CD skipping a track (did I just date myself – ahh, vinyl!) For newbies, I would say to start small. Don’t try to tackle Chopin’s Sonata in C minor. Be patient and have fun – Primal Law # 6 : Play. And if you find that it disturbs the neighbors or their dog, use Primal Law # 4 : Run really fast.

    1. I used to play the baritone horn!!! 🙂

      “For newbies, I would say to start small. Don’t try to tackle Chopin’s Sonata in C minor. Be patient and have fun – Primal Law # 6 : Play. And if you find that it disturbs the neighbors or their dog, use Primal Law # 4 : Run really fast.”

      LOL!! I’d also say try to play the music you like. Unfortunately, classically trained music teachers tend to think their students would also like to play classical music. Almost every other genre is easier and quite often more fun. If you don’t like classical music and don’t want to play it, find a teacher that will teach you what you do want to play!

    2. My bad! I wasn’t engaging Primal Law # 10 : Use your mind. I should have said not to attempt Chopin’s ‘Prelude’ in C minor, not Sonata… in case any one noticed. I was too hasty when I ‘composed’ the initial comment all by myself.

  15. I must be the only person in the world who hates music. Music is that noise that’s on when I’m trying to read. I spend a lot of time turning off all the sources of noise (music) in my house while everyone else is busy turning them on. I can immediately feel it causing my blood pressure to rise and a headache coming on. I had a friend who could no longer listen to music when she was suffering a bout with anxiety. She described how she used to love listening to her daughter sing and the radio on in the car but while she was suffering anxiety everything sounded like nails on a chalkboard. I said welcome to my life, I’ve always been like that. It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is. But drums and guitar solos would definitely be at the top of my list to avoid. I realize I am probably alone in experiencing this as most people talk about how they couldn’t live without music.

    1. In fairness, you maybe suffering from sound/sensory overload. Up until 100 years ago, music was something you made for yourself (singing) or listened to periodically. Our modern era has too much of all forms of stimulation.

      1. Overload may be why I very seldom listen to music in the car–it’s too distracting. Funny how good music can be almost as distracting as bad. I have a real problem w/ shrieking/squealing electric guitar work, especially if it’s off-key. I used to get earaches in the car when my husband insisted on having the stereo on (reasonable volume); low pitches are even more painful than high ones.

    2. When I went for my first checkup after getting hearing aids my audiologist commented on what a silent world I live in. I never have background music playing. I can listen to my husband’s music sometimes but sometimes I have to ask him to either turn it off or put on his headphones. When our daughter joined the school orchestra in 5th grade I was so glad she chose the string bass for her instrument since I could tolerate the wrong notes of a bass much better than those of a violin.

    3. I certainly count myself among the music-lovers, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be very irritating when you’re trying to focus on something else, or to sleep! Especially when you can’t escape it. For me, the most annoying thing of all is hearing two different, clashing sources of sound at once. Even when it’s not terribly loud, that can truly drive me a little crazy!

    4. I love music but I rarely listen to it. It’s one of those things that demands so much of my attention, it’s difficult for me to have on in the background.

      Having the TV or music I didn’t choose playing somewhere nearby exhausts me mentally. I can’t tune it out and it drives me crazy!

      I have to wonder, Pamela, if your problem is not that you hate music, but that you hate distractions. If you choose the music and you can concentrate on it properly, do you like it then?

    5. Having studied a bit of environmental psychology, I know that I am very sensitive to sound like you are. Some people need it to function, others need an absence to function. There a normal curve (shocking). Music for has its place and time and even then I am sensitive. My current “thing” is that yoga and music really don’t mix for me but yet people seem to expect it in an ancient meditative tradition. So that’s an attachment for me to let go of but still. . . when I enjoy music I enjoy it freely and let myself go. Holding myself in two places is just way too much.

  16. Just a different opinion about “easy to play instruments.” I would not classify the recorder as easy to play. You need to blow into it just right — there are no real adjustments on the mouth piece. The holes have to be completely covered to attain the correct pitch. If your fingers are too small or too large, it’s problematic in a way that would not be on a flute.

    And then for all that fiddly work, you end up with a sound that’s very thin and quiet. At least you can be loud with a bugle. There is a reason they abandoned the recorder as serious instrument after the middle ages.

    I’ve often thought they put those things in elementary schools to convince kids in mass that playing an instrument is difficult and unsatisfying experience.

  17. I sing and play fiddle and mandolin. I have been singing since I was in preschool (my dad was a choir directory), but started fiddle at 22 and mandolin at 24. I currently play in a group that performs in nursing homes about once a month and I cantor at church about every other week. I have played with the Society for Creative Anachronisms at dances and just to play (medieval and Renaissance music). Through it all, I have experienced just about everything Mark mentioned.

    I am an extreme introvert. At age 22, on my first violin “test”, I was a grad student studying physics at Rice University in Houston taking lessons from another grad student studying violin. Just before I walked on stage to perform, my instructor informed me that I was so lucky, the Houston Symphony first chairs of the string section were going to be my jury. It almost paralyzed me. However, I got through it, and all the other fears I had in performing before someone else. Music is meant to be performed in front of other people. Doing it by yourself somehow diminishes it. Just getting together with a group is good, but performing before an audience is great. Audiences want you to succeed, and usually do not notice when you mess up. Pros mess up all the time – they just ignore it and keep going. Now I do the same.

    As for mental agility – try playing a new piece on the guitar while singing it at the same time. This uses almost 100% of your brain functions – verbal, math, creative, … The first time I tried to sing and play mandolin at the same time was not pretty. I got better. Now I can do it without thinking – too much ;).

    The best time to start an instrument is when you are six years old. The next best time is right now. My wife and I are in our mid fifties. She just started learning recorder a couple of years ago and is doing great. If you don’t play something – start. You will not regret it.

    If you want something easy, I will second the uke and recorder recommendations and add mandolin and electric bass. Be aware that any of these are easy to start, but, like any musical instrument, will take time and effort to get good. If you want a challenge, try violin or french horn.

    Go for it!

    1. I second that about French horn–had it basically handed to me when i was 10, being told how difficult it was but never a professional lesson.
      I also took up bugling in the 8th grade–no valves so lip tension is the only way to change the notes. Before I changed schools at the end of 9th grade I taught several of the up-and-coming 8th graders how to bugle–very satisfying experience PLUS they all passed their tryouts.

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

    How come no one ever suggests setting up a brass band for these types of things? 😉

  19. I’ve played saxophone for most of my life (since I was 8-ish) and violin before that. My dad plays woodwinds, my brother plays trombone, my mom is atonal but she loves a good Latin beat and will dance around to it, and my sister was a professional dancer so we have the “dancing to music” part covered. 🙂

    Performing in front of people used to put the FEAR in me, but now I’m used to being onstage playing something (now competing in local O-lifting meets put the FEAR in me). BUT it is good, as you say, to get out of our comfort zones.

    Last night, I had a whole clarinet solo to do in big band rehearsal, and I’m not primarily a clarinet player. But I felt the adrenalin rush and went with it, and did just fine (and now see where I Have to practice because we have a gig on Sunday)!

  20. Great post, Mark. If anything is primal, it’s got to be music and the drum circle is the most natural, primal, social thing out there. And so easy to join in on. There should be one in every town. Never think that you are “not musical”, because you are. A drum circle is a great way for those who think they lack musicality to connect with it. Just remember to hang out a while. Let the power of the groove work on you and notice how it becomes part of you. Very healing.

  21. As part of my no regrets lifestyle change my husband bought me a violin. It is my favorite instrument and the one I regretted stopping as a teen. I fiddled with it for a year and then got a teacher. While I have no delusions of ever playing in an orchestra, I am enjoying the basic level of competency I have obtained in the few years. Between violin and karate I am happier, as a side effect I am more active.

  22. nicely timed post, mark. as most of the country is being chased inside by earlier sunsets, we all have more evening time to practice an instrument. by candlelight of course. you got my scottish roots begging for some pennywhistle.

  23. I also recommend the “Riq”, a Egyptian tambourine. It’s a Primal instrument with jingles! You can just find a kids tambourine somewhere, or for around $100 you can buy a high-quality, indestructible Riq. My teacher recommends the REMO Glen Velez.

  24. I have to point out that correlation causation. I would certainly agree that making music makes *me* feel good, but I’m not sure that it’s any more than the good feeling I get from other accomplishments. It is not clear whether the musical training enhances other academic accomplishment, or if musical talent is just closely related.

    In addition to being an embedded-systems programmer, I am a professional violinist and violin/viola teacher. I have noticed that all of my better students excel at math and the hard sciences. In fact, I recently lost one of my more advanced students because he got a math scholarship to a school outside of my area — and I’m likely to lose his brother next year for the same reason.

    Back when I was in high school (4 decades ago), I won first place in a UIL math competition with a paper about music. In my research for that paper, one of the things I learned was that the percentage of engineers and scientists who played a musical instrument was much higher than the percentage of the general population who were musicians.

    I tell all of my students that music is a form of mathematics.

    The school districts local to me have adopted the Asian model of requiring musical training for 3 years starting in grade 6 (that local policy keeps my violin studio full of students, so I’m glad). Even if that does not boost other academic achievements, it’s certainly a effective way to discover who has musical talent. Which may be the reason so many of the current crop of musical prodigies are Asian.

  25. I’ve thought about taking up the Djembe in the past little while. I love the primal essence of drumming and I find it very spiritual. To learn how to produce that essence would be awesome.

  26. I played clarinet and baritone sax in high school, don’t play it very often these days. My youngest son plays brass (trumpet and tuba). One of his friends got a really nice ocarina and talked him into getting one too. Listening to him play it around the house got me interested. So now I have two wonderful sounding handmade ocarinas that are a joy to play, and it was easy to learn! If anyone is interested they can check out Songbird Ocarina online, they have some good videos of great songs.

  27. I can’t sing or play to save my life, but I love going to Zumba for that reason of elation and happiness when you just jump and rush about with up-beat music. I know Zumba is much sneered upon these forums, but well, I love it.

  28. Great article. This is why I actually AVOID sites like Luminosity, QuantifiedMind, etc. simply because it’s just more screen glare and EMF. Instead, I grab my guitar and head out to the backyard garden. Screw brain game smartphone apps and bring on my Stairway To Heaven tabs.

  29. I don’t play any instruments, but I’m a hoop dancer & move to music nearly every day. It most definitely improves my mood as well as requiring me to use my mind & body in ever-changing ways– figuring out how to perform new tricks, discovering new combinations & transitions, & especially “thinking on my feet” when dancing with our local drum circle once a week.

    Even dancing alone gives me a lot of pleasure, but the energy of that weekly jam is like a drug! It definitely seems to key into some deep primal need to move with rhythm & expressiveness.

  30. A drum circle at Primalcon? Would this be the one in Mexico? I would so be down with that. 😀

  31. I definitely have that fear to pick up any instrument. And it would be so rare and so recreational (with little real attempts to “try” to improve, which is hard for me; I am a perfectionist and wish to be good at anything I decide to set my mind to).

    However, I have been a karaoke singer for a couple years now and LOVE it! Of course I practice the songs first, typically while driving. But I definitely get a great feeling being around some of the friends I have made there and others I bring with me! Occasionally I’ll step out side the box: for me, that’s singing a song I think I know relatively well but never formally practiced.

    I enjoy singing so much that I have even been tempted by job ideas I have been told about, as well as by a karaoke host inviting me to join the local municipal choir. Tempting…

    1. I agree that singing can be as important as playing an instrument. I sang in my high school choir. Being part of some incredible harmonies is incredible.

  32. We are all hardwired differently and some people naturally have more talent at math, linguistics, or music etc. I took a few guitar lessons and at the end of the series the instructor suggested I take up stamp collecting LOL. All kidding aside, I think activities to stimulate the brain in different ways is great. My tastes in music run from Rage Against the Machine to Deuter. Would be good for me to at least strum a few chords for a few minutes every day. I think 15 minutes of practice every day is better than a single two hour session once a week.

  33. Would it hurt to take a few minutes away from drum circles to support music in our public schools, then? How many kids out there only get access to playing musical instruments through school, and yet when the budget cuts come, music is one of the first on the chopping block.

    I’m a professional clarinetist, and my husband is a music teacher who can’t get a job in the New England area because every time someone retires, that job gets reduced to less than a half-time position or gets absorbed into someone else’s job. In other words, music teachers are disappearing.

    It’s not just about band and chorus, either. When I worked in Texas, where the band programs were as big as the football programs, they had enough teachers, enough flexibility, and enough enthusiasm to go as far as developing mariachi bands for the kids, so they got to learn about their culture through music.

    Whenever I play gigs with families, I’m always amazed at how many kids come and look over our shoulders or dance around, even if it’s my “stuck-up” woodwind quintet. They’re fascinated. But by not supporting music in public schools, we’re taking a source of wonder and enjoyment away from them. What a shame.

    And, now I’m off my high horse.

    1. Some thoughts:

      -Most of the New England area is aging. (Maine and VT have the oldest median ages in the nation.) It’s harder to get teaching jobs where school populations are on the decline.

      In Texas, both the school age population and the population in general is on the rise. I would expect it would be much easier there to find open teaching jobs.

      -This is political, but since the 60’s there are have been many unfunded mandates on schools. Communities and states only have so much money to throw at education. Money that must be spent on say, special education, at some point is going to dip into more optional activities.

      I don’t think it’s a matter of will necessarily, but at some point, something’s gotta give in the budget. 🙁

  34. 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 🙂

    1. Since “Bill Berry” was the drummer for REM, and is a very innovative percussionist, I’m going to take your advice.

  35. 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.

    1. agree 100% !!!

      like this:

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

      here are my 2 cents

  36. 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.

  37. The Kazoo is a particularly easy instrument to master, although it is rather annoying . . . .

  38. 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.


  39. 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

  40. 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?

    1. 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!! 🙂

  41. 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!

  42. 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.

  43. 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).

  44. Played the piano as a kid – now I just play guitar hero with my kids – and I get the same feeling!

  45. 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!

  46. 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)

  47. 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 😀

  48. The mountain dulcimer gets my vote. Easy to pick up and learn. You can get a relatively inexpensive kit to make your own.

  49. 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!! 🙂

  50. 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!

  51. 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.

  52. 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 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.

  55. 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.

  56. 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?

  57. 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. “

  58. 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.


  59. 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!

  60. Irish Music Instruments consist of fiddle, flutes, bagpipes, free reeds instruments, banjo, harps, hammered dulcimer etc.These are all part of Celtic music heritage.These are all traditions of Scotland and other Scottish people.