The Surprising Benefits of Music for Mental Health
Updated: April 8, 2021
When I started out researching the benefits of musical learning and the effects learning a musical instrument has on the brain I expected to find a lot of positive things. However, 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 of musical learning are astounding.
The Importance of Music During a Pandemic
During this extraordinary time of Covid-19, I believe learning, playing or just listening to music is now more important than ever.
Remi Chiu, a musicologist at Loyola University, says music’s ability to overcome our egos is a “very powerful” tool in a quarantine. “When you’re making music, you’re submitting yourself – your mind, your body – to its regulation.” In other words you can lose yourself in it and really help calm and focus the mind.
From the time of the pyramids, physicians have prescribed music as a necessary balm. And it was an aide to recovery for victims of whatever plague was in force at the time.
Dr Chris Macklin, a former professor of musicology at Mercer University and an authority on plague music, writes that “music was not a luxury in times of epidemic uncertainty – it was a necessity”
Lockdown brings opportunity to really focus on getting to grips with that concertina you’ve been promising to learn or that Irish whistle that’s still in its box.
Equally you might be wishing to add to your repertoire of traditional Irish tunes. Or, you may be considering finally taking the plunge and learning a musical instrument for the first time.
Read on for inspiration…
The Benefits of Learning a Musical Instrument
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 health 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 or Covid lockdown restrictions keep us indoors. And TV becomes ever more addictive. All of this causes the brain to decline. And if it’s unchecked this 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!
Learning a Musical Instrument During Lockdown
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. They are, however, quite capable of finding the buttons on a concertina. I’ve known flute players whose breath can’t fill a large standard flute. But they 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.
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology you can now order musical instruments online from the comfort of your own home.
Most online music stores will have videos and detailed descriptions to help you choose the right instrument.
They will also have dedicated musical customer service team with years of expertise and experience. This team can advise you, should you need any advice on choosing an instrument.
The Elixir of Life
Scientists have 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 musical learning is far broader than that of a brain training game. This is because you’re only being trained in one particular skill with the game. Whereas with music, it’s a full and holistic brain workout.
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. 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 learning can induce various structural and functional changes in the brain. This depends on which instrument you are learning, 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 on the Benefits of Musical Learning
Studies suggest that musical training in the older stages of life can diminish effects of the ageing brain. In another study of elderly people, scientists 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.
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 this article published by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) USA on their online journal list.
It includes findings by a group of neuroscientists, psychologists and music teachers.
If you managed to make it through 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.
Return on Investment?
I cannot overstate the benefits of learning a musical instrument. It will affect every aspect of your life for the better. Music not only improves your mental abilities but it also improves your general state of mind. It allows the mind to switch functions and focus exclusively on the task at hand.
When the brain is concentrating on making music there is little space for anxiety. Trying to perfect that tricky barre chord change on a guitar takes time and concentration. So you’re less likely to be worrying about outside things!
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 Irish Traditional Music Session into Google. 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.
Online Irish Instrument Tutorials
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 concertina lessons with Caitlín Nic Gabhann for free when you purchase a McNeela concertina.
When you purchase a Setanta Soprano whistle from McNeela Instruments you will receive a selection of truly excellent online whistle lessons with maker and tutor, John O’Brien.
The All New Online Irish Whistle Lessons Course with John O’Brien
Released late 2020 this course, produced by leading musical director, David Hayes, has been garnering rave reviews and is designed for all levels of player, from complete beginners to advanced level.
Sign up now for a special introductory offer and start a new musical adventure with McNeela Music and John O’Brien.
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. Paraic