Three Real Health Benefits of Playing a Musical Instrument
Through a few decades of experience as a musician I’ve noticed playing an instrument and/or singing can have a positive effect on overall health. I’ve seen this in my students, friends, family, and colleagues. The benefits don’t depend much on which instrument you play or whether you are a beginner or a professional. Nor are the benefits of playing music confined to a certain age. Think about how playing music excites and motivates children and how it revives memories for elderly adults.
For starters, it is worth noting that music therapy is a whole field of practice that focuses on how music can improve health for everyone whether a person performs music or not. So, let’s look at how playing an instrument or singing really allows a person to activate physical, cognitive, and social benefits.
Making music is inherently active. The physical nature of performing music is often overlooked (until a singer is congested or blisters form on a guitar player’s fingers). Some of these physical things include breath control, strength, balance, rhythm, the sensitivity of touch, posture, coordination, relaxation, and muscle memory.
Practicing music is training not unlike athletic training. The first thing students will learn on any instrument is how to hold the instrument and how to produce a sound. This is different on every instrument, but it is a physical skill. It is called technique, and you can take it as far as you want to go with it. Some techniques are easy and require little training and physical skill; others take years of constant practice. Think of acrobats! Now think of some musicians you like who are acrobats at their craft.
Playing music will help you develop physical skills that will aid you in everyday healthy living. I know a singer who has struggled with degenerative lung disease and needed a double lung transplant. Her doctor told her that singing was good for her lungs. In her case, the physical exercise involved in making music had long-lasting, far-reaching health benefits apart from the single focus of singing. Physical skills acquired through performing on an instrument are often transferrable skills that will support overall physical health.
Playing a musical instrument can help with cognitive skills in many ways. Music is a puzzle; it is constant life-long learning that exercises our brains. It requires memory, attention, attitude, and intense listening skill. It is rewarding to learn a new song on your instrument or play something today that you couldn’t play last week. If you practice something enough it stays with you. Think of songs and melodies you know and will never forget. Knowledge, repertoire and learning skills grow and expand as someone studies an instrument. Patterns emerge and a musician begins to adapt and mold what is learned in order to produce something creative. Neural pathways fire and mental sharpness become more frequent and even instinctive.
Music is often referred to as a universal language, and it is learned much like language is learned. Often you can see and hear the progress as you play and study an instrument. For someone playing an instrument, sounds are learned, organized, recognized, interpreted, and reproduced. This is a mental exercise that happens every time a person picks up an instrument, and this exercise strengthens the mind enabling it to do more tasks and process information more quickly.
For many people, playing an instrument will help with mental health. It can be stress-relieving, engrossing, and energizing. I’ve seen so many quiet shy people show something totally unexpected and unique about themselves when they sing or play an instrument. I have seen depressed elderly people light up when they play an instrument and sing, and I’ve heard friends say how much better they feel after they beat their stress away while attending a weekly drumming circle.
Playing music in a group, or for an audience requires a set of social skills that are vital in all parts of life. Improving teamwork, courage, and intense listening skill are some of the biggest social benefits of playing an instrument. Teamwork when making music involves knowledge and empathy of your fellow musicians and your audience. Discipline and judgment are used to know what to play and how much or how loud to play. Courage, strategy, preparation, and problem-solving skills are always used when it comes to learning and performing a piece of music. Is this language starting to sound like a resume or job advertisement? Yes! Playing music gives you practice using all kinds of soft skills needed for the job market.
Many life lessons and music lessons are similar. How do you deal with conflict and still get things done? How do you overcome your fears, your stage fright? Clearly getting through a challenging piece of music uses many of the same skills a person uses when getting through a difficult time in life.
So, pick up your instrument or take a breath to sing for the first time or the ten-thousandth time and try to remember you are doing something good for your health and hope for those around you. On the other hand, just forget about all that and enjoy the music you can make. The benefits will come even if you are unaware. Undoubtedly, you will discover new benefits that will continue to surprise you.