Music for the mind: “it’s not just fun – you really have to think”

Can music improve your mental health? Various studies have proven that learning a musical instrument from a young age has long-lasting benefits on the brain and develops children’s intelligence in various ways. But what benefits would learning a musical instrument at a later stage in life have?

Nick Davis, 40, is a neuroscientist and a senior lecturer in Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University. He admits that learning new skills after the age of 25 is psychologically proven to be a bit more difficult, as the brain is not as plastic and able to change after that age – however, Nick believes that taking extra effort in learning new skills can only help keep yourself mentally active.

The advantages of learning a musical instrument are numerous, but from a mental health perspective they can be split into two aspects. They are of interest to both psychologists and people who might want to learn a musical skill, because it means that different experiences and benefits appeal to different people.

First of all, there is experiencing music in an artistic and aesthetic way, which means “learning to understand a new sort of artistic feel, the same way that you can’t really appreciate poetry without sort of thinking about it”.

The other feature of music is that it is an activity, a movement, which involves training your brain to coordinate better. For instance, if you want to learn how to play the piano, you have to coordinate your fingers or if you want to learn how to play the saxophone, you have to coordinate your fingers and your breath. This type of psychological process is very useful, as Nick says that “people who want to learn a new instrument have to develop new motor skills, in the same way that learning to drive a car involves learning new motor skills. “

I was interested in how mature women see their musical instruments learning experiences and here is what I found.

Jill Bentley, 77, used to play the piano when she was a child and has been playing the violin since she was ten. But exactly 20 years ago, before she retired, Jill wanted to take on a new challenge which reflects her rebellious attitude. So she decided to start learning how to play the double bass and she admits she was fascinated by its huge dimensions and the deep sound it makes.

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“I just thought ‘this is a really ridiculous thing really to take on at my age’. I am the only one in the small orchestra that I play in, so I suppose in that way, some of my friends think I am a bit crazy.”

It was when Jill got breast cancer that she realised how isolating it felt not being able to play the double bass in her orchestra, because there is a social side to it, as well as an “artistic challenge”. “You can get sort of wrapped up in trying to make it sound beautiful, trying to fit in with everybody else.”

While she felt frightened about her life-threatening health verdict, Jill was still able to play double bass on her own. She believes that getting lost in playing the double bass improves her feeling of wellbeing. Focusing on it means she could and can stop thinking and worrying about anything else: “I like just playing it to myself, I find that quite therapeutic”, she says.

Now that her operation was successful, Jill feels like her life got back to normal by simply being able to play the double bass with her friends again: “I wasn’t aware of that at the time, but it might have helped improve my mood, just getting back to normal life really and going out and meeting people again. Playing a string instrument is very social because you can go and meet people in an orchestra and make new friends.”

Jill also admits that there are many advantages in learning how to play a musical instrument after the age of 50, but she also says she found it a big mental challenge and she still sees it as a challenge.

“You have to do a lot of working out towards where to put your fingers to get the notes. It’s like doing a crossword or something, you have to work it out. My hope was that it would keep my brain active and I think it is true.”

She is not only trying to keep herself mentally healthy, but also made resolutions about enjoying every single day without getting upset about small things.

“I am aware that it’s worth making the best of every day, especially as you get older and I think playing an instrument enhances this attitude towards living your life at its fullest.”

Seeing how passionate and excited Jill was about the double bass, 50-year-old Penny Pullan, who plays in the same orchestra, started to consider learning to play this outstanding instrument. Penny has a wonderful story about how she was separated from her first love, the violin, and rediscovered it as a mature woman. When she was about six or seven, her grandparents bought her a beautiful little violin and she loved playing it. But her mother decided to sell the violin after six months, because she believed Penny wasn’t practicing enough. “I think it was that SHE didn’t like practicing, because in the Suzuki method they had to play along with you”, Penny recalls. Vanessa Moore, a violin player who uses the Suzuki method when teaching children says this original Japanese technique means “involving the parents in every stage so that they become confident to help teach their child at home between lessons.”

Penny does agree with Jill on the benefit of clearing your mind which a musical instrument offers, because there are other things to think about when playing. Penny says that five years ago, when she started playing the violin, her then nine-year-old daughter found it easier to learn and remember music. She managed to become better than her daughter through hard work, despite admitting that her memory and concentration power are not making learning music as easy as it was when she was her daughter’s age.

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“There’s reading the notes, and then a hand has to do stuff, the other hand has to do stuff and there are all sorts of bio-mechanical things and all the things that my now 14-year-old just does easily.”

Penny admits that relaxing and practising can get a bit too much sometimes, with all the motor skills she has to use simultaneously: “it’s not just fun – you really have to think.” But she believes finding a community, be it physical or online, can be extremely helpful and the retired people in her orchestra now have connections they would otherwise not have in the community if it wasn’t for music: “you will find other people who are struggling with exactly the same piece and they might be doing the same and say ‘try this finger on this bar as it makes it easier’. If something goes wrong, other people will want to help”.

This help goes beyond musical training – the friendships that music bonds seem to help even in the most difficult situations. For instance, when one of the orchestra members fell and hit his head, everyone in the band raised money to help with his hospital recovery.

But there is more to the support you receive from learning a musical instrument, from Penny’s point of view. She found playing the violin an “escape from the full-on relentlessness of being an entrepreneur”. It also helps with going through difficult moments, as she remembers feeling incredibly sad when her family friends lost their daughter to cancer. Playing slow Scottish Laments were Penny’s perfect escape from the painful reality: “they are really sorrowful and all these feelings just pour out of you. After an hour of doing that, I feel much better.”

She admits playing solo is fun , but it can get quite lonely, while also risking getting you more nervous in public performances: “the best thing about playing an instrument, especially in a group is that it does ease loneliness for many types of people. You don’t have to be extroverted to be part of this group doing stuff together.”, Penny says.

She feels like being a violinist in an orchestra means “you’re in a mix of others so you are creating the music as a group and there is something quite magical about that.” That doesn’t mean you are pressure-free as a musician in an orchestra though: “It is harder learning as an adult, because when you’re an adult, people expect you to be competent.”

Now, Penny’s father, who is 82, is getting her a new violin to celebrate his daughter’s 50th birthday.

If Jill and Penny’s stories about learning a musical instrument don’t inspire you to try it out, maybe Nick’s advice as a neuroscientist and psychologist will encourage you to give it a second thought: “I would recommend you try to acquire new skills both because it can protect your brain from mental decline, but also because it’s enjoyable. There is something about engaging in something new that is fun. I think that could be a bonding experience if you do it with friends.”


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