• Music Trains your Brain - brain training with musical notes

The Far-Reaching Benefits of Learning a Musical Instrument

When I started out researching the benefits of music and the effects learning a musical instrument has on the brain I expected to find a lot of positive things but the full extent of the benefits and actual measurable improvements in everything from cognitive function to disease prevention genuinely surprised me.

If I had my way, every adult of a certain age would take up a musical instrument regardless of prior experience and of course every child should be given the opportunity to learn a musical instrument – the lifelong benefits are astounding.

This blog post, which has been percolating for months now, is for the 50 plus age group in terms of brain health and disease prevention but you can take it that these apply doubly to anyone under 50. I’m of a certain age myself and brain health is the new hot topic nowadays as doctors can keep us physically well much longer but what about our mental health?

Diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s are seen as old-age diseases and almost inevitable in many cases but need that be so? I’m referring to the degeneration that occurs in older brains as our life pace begins to slow and the body starts to tire. Energy levels drop and self-motivation wanes. Cold weather keeps us indoors and TV becomes ever more addictive – all of this causes the brain to decline and if it’s unchecked can lead to ‘dottiness’ or those dreaded ‘senior moments’.

Is this necessary? Imagine if you could restart your life, inject new energy into it, create a new circle of friends, and start to regenerate the brain! Why shuffle off this mortal coil when you might fly like a noble eagle with your faculties intact. Well, that’s the hope anyway!

Take Up a Musical Instrument and Watch your Life Change

There is a musical instrument for everyone, for practically every condition whether you’ve arthritis in your hands, are short of breath, are not physical mobile. The fact of the matter is, there is practically no excuse not to embark on a musical learning journey. I’ve known pianists who no longer play the piano due to hand pain and the stretch required, but are quite capable of finding the buttons on a concertina, flute players whose breath can’t fill a large standard flute but are well able to play a whistle oh and by the way, if you can talk, you can sing. What I’m trying to tell you is, don’t despair, there is an instrument for you.

Man playing fiddle at trad music session

The Elixir of Life

It has been shown that learning a new instrument can increase your IQ by up to 3 points. Jessica Grahn, a cognitive scientist at Western University in London, Ontario says that just a year of piano lessons, combined with regular practice can increase IQ by as much as 3 points. Add to that the increase in your sense of well-being, improved ability to manage pain and greatly enhanced cognitive function and you have a veritable living, breathing elixir of life.

Forget Brain Training Games

The effects on the brain and mental function of learning to play a musical instrument is far broader than that of a brain training game, as you’re only being trained in one particular skill with the game. Learning a musical instrument has what psychologists refer to as transfer effects, not only does it improve brain and mental function but it also improves other abilities that are seemingly unrelated.

“Music reaches parts of the brain that other things can’t,” says Catherine Loveday of the University of Westminster. “It’s a strong cognitive stimulus that grows the brain in a way that nothing else does, and the evidence that musical training enhances things like working memory and language is very robust.”

Musical training can induce various structural and functional changes in the brain, depending on which instrument is being learned, and the intensity of the training regime.

“It has been hypothesized that the act of playing music requires many brain systems to work together, such as the hearing, motor and perception systems. This study was the first time we saw direct changes in the brain after one session, demonstrating that the action of creating music leads to a strong change in brain activity.” Dr. Bernhard Ross, Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto

Scientific Research

Studies suggest that musical training in the older stages of life can diminish effects of the aging brain. In another study of elderly people, it was observed that those individuals who played a musical instrument were less likely to suffer dementia than participants involved in other type of leisure activities like reading, writing, or doing crossword puzzles.

Musical Training

Countless studies have been carried out using piano training as the test and I don’t have enough room to enter all of the results but take a look at these excerpt from articles published by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) USA on their online journal list. It includes findings by a group of neuroscientists, psychologist and music teachers.

Our piano learning program for 4-months resulted in an improvement in the Stroop Test (measures a person’s selective attention capacity and skills, as well as their processing speed ability.), reflecting an enhancement of selective processing, automaticity, and inhibitory control. This improvement seems to be specifically caused by the musical training since the control group did not show such a pattern change through time. Interestingly, a previous study showed that professional musicians had significantly smaller color-word interference effects in the Stroop task. Moreover, our musical instrument training program also seemed to enhance visuomotor tracking, attention, processing speed, and motor function, as can be seen on an almost significant trend in the TMT-A (The Trail Making Test is a neuropsychological test of visual attention and task switching).

Two blocks of tests, one for cognitive domains (motor ability, attention, and executive function) and the second for mood and QOL (quality of life), were carried out in a group of older adults (61–84 years old; n = 13) that for 4 months received piano classes and practiced for 45 min/day against a control group (63–80 years old; n = 16) that had done other kind of leisure activities. We have found significant improvements following the piano training in some tests that measure attention and executive function. Moreover, we also observe a significant improvement in affective states (BDI and POMS Profile of Mood States – POMS; General and specific measure of mood states, BDI Beck Depression Inventory; Measure of depressive symptom severity) and some domains of QOL (WHOQOL-BREF; The WHOQOL-BREF instrument comprises 26 items, which measure the following broad domains: physical health, psychological health, social relationships, and environment)

If you managed to make though all the scientific language it is plain to see just how beneficial learning a musical instrument can be. It is also patently clear that you’ll get out of it what you put into it. If you’re interested, it’s worth reading the full article here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3814522/

Return on investment?

The benefits of learning a musical instrument cannot be overstated. Every aspect of your life is affected for the better. The skills you acquire and the parts of the brain that you grow and develop will help you in many other areas of your life including your business life, your personal relationships and your own mental health. Is it possible to put a price on this? I don’t think so.

How do I get Started?

Do some research online and offline. Go along to a local Irish music session, see which instrument appeals. If you can’t get out to one, there are plenty of examples online, just type in Irish Traditional Music Session into Google and look through the results, there are plenty of videos showing sessions, plenty of articles too. You can also explore musical instrument stores online, take a look at what they sell, if there are videos showcasing the instrument and if they offer tutorials.

At this point I can’t resist plugging my own wonderful online store of traditional Irish music instruments. Lots of my instruments have videos in the descriptions so you can get an idea of how they sound. I’m also building up a collection of online Irish musical tutorials, so you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your own home to start learning. At the moment we offer some tremendous beginner & intermediate tutorials with Caitlín Nic Gabhann for free when you purchase a McNeela concertina. Likewise, I have recorded a tutorial for beginner bodhrán players and partnered up with Rónán Ó Snodaigh to produce extraordinary bodhrán tutorials up to advanced and performance level, again free with purchases of my tuneable bodhráns.

My mission in life is to bring music to everyone regardless of age, gender, income etc. if you’re interested in learning more, take a look at my blog post, Begin Again – Restarting your Childhood Instrument

*The above blog post is for general information purposes only. I’m not a doctor so I would advise anyone worried about any elements of their health to contact their GP

Posted by McNeela


  • Paul

    Great article on the benefits of learning a musical instrument. I just purchased one of your concertina’s from a guy in Boston who plays the base and did not have time to learn the concertina. I played the concertina 10 years ago, am about to retire and intend to play the concertina, manufactured by your company, and am thrilled to do so and also receive the medical brain benefits along with the enjoyment. I have played the whistle in sessions since the early 1990’s. Thank you.


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