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 more than three decades 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 flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.

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