Look at any list of mental health coping tools and I bet you’re going to find music someway, somehow, somewhere on it. Music as a coping tool is about as universal as it gets, because most of us find comfort in it in some way. Blaring the music to punk rock and screaming it out (yes, that’s a technical term 😊 ). Putting a calming violin playlist on in the background when we need to focus on work or school.
But let’s take it a step further into why learning to play an instrument is even more powerful for us as humans. I’ll share a personal story. As a graduate student, there was always something I needed to be doing. The pace was almost insurmountable, but during one spring break where things were just like 30% slower and I had a chance to breathe, I made a decision. It’s time to do more for myself! So, I started teaching myself piano at the age of 28… nope, not 8, but 28. It was something I had always wanted to do, but never committed to it.
It didn’t take long for me to notice all sorts of anecdotal benefits. First, I wasn’t (and still am not) very good. I started to appreciate that the struggle to learn made me focus all my attention on the music and where my hands were, and what they were doing. It was such a nice “brain break” from all the other work stressors going on. There was simply no room for anything else. It made me get more comfortable with imperfection. Messing up, not doing it right….. things most of us try to avoid become common and not such a big deal. “Ooop, didn’t hit that right, let’s slow it down and try it again.” A reminder that is helpful for therapists just the same. And even though it was a challenge, it certainly served as a form of self-care for me; in a job where I am inherently with other people all the time, having this just for myself, where it was just me and the music, was such a nice space for me to recharge. And I noticed, I always seemed to step away from the keyboard, calmer, more relaxed, and ready to tackle the next thing. Pretty early on I made a commitment to myself to play everyday for a year. Both the goal and sense of accomplishment in that were also more positive for me than I imagined they could be.
Personally, I’ve become a big proponent of people learning to playing an instrument. And science is too!
There’s a literal party going on in your head when you play an instruments. When we play music, practically every part of our brain must get involved to make sense of it! Our auditory, visual, and motor cortices all have to start paying attention to the stimulation (and very quickly at that) to make playing and learning happen. Furthermore, the left hemisphere of our brains, usually associated with order, doing things analytically, and facts are called into action! It’s not hard to understand why our right hemisphere is paying attention.… that’s the part of our brain associated with creativity, imagination, emotion, and art. When we engage both of the hemispheres together, our corpus callosum (the essential telephone line between these sections of our brain) learns to have a more open line of communication, helping them talk much easier and work together.
And you know what, when we strengthen these metaphorical muscles while playing music, we benefit from those enhanced skills in any other actions we do. Listening to music engages the brain, sure, but playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full body workout. And actually, it’s one of the only things that stimulates our entire brain all at once!
Music can also help to decrease depression and anxiety, and promote relaxation. In a 2020 study by Spotify on a group of UK adults, 89% found that playing a musical instrument positively affected their mental health by providing relaxation and happiness. When it came to destressing, 75% said they play their musical instrument to decrease stress and unwind.
Playing an instrument is a great form of bilateral stimulation as it uses both left and right-hand movements (remember that whole two hemisphere thing!). This action of getting your whole brain engaged is akin to a tool used in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy. This is a common therapy for PTSD and other many disorders which uses bilateral stimulation to work through unprocessed trauma by moving memories and emotions from our limbic brains (where trauma gets stuck causing ongoing pain and distress) up into our neocortex which can make sense of past events, process them, and reduce our reactivity to them. By playing an instrument and employing this stimulation, an individual may be able to engage in the processing a traumatic event that was originally halted by overwhelming emotions associated with the trauma.
Finally, and not a small thing at all, playing an instrument and making music also promotes positive self-expression, which can help with any issues we are facing as a community these days. By channeling those emotions through instruments, we are able to get out our grief, sadness, and anger. Music can be another form of communication when we struggle to find the words.
Playing an instrument can reduce stress by decreasing the stress hormone cortisol. Because stress affects the immune system, by decreasing stress through music, we can decrease the negative effects on the immune system. This lowers risk for major disease and death in those of all ages.
As a final thought, learning and and playing a musical instrument throughout one’s life is associated with a lower risk of developing dementia by increasing brain resilience. While typically a diseases that affects memory, thinking and behavior, even if one develops such disorders, incredibly “musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer’s disease because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease” (Mayo Clinic, 20201).
You may have heard the pop-culture story about Tony Bennett and his recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis. I encourage everyone to watch this clip about his last performance, and the incredible way performing overrides the grips of his Alzheimer’s to return him to that legendary performer we all know.
It’s simple. Your brain is better on music. Now, you just have to decide your instrument of choice!
Samantha Morel, Ph.D.