Top benefits of learning to play an instrument as an adult

by Anita Naik

If you have never learnt to play an instrument, it's not too late. With studies showing it is one of the best ways to help keep the brain healthy, here are the top benefits of learning to play an instrument as an adult.

It will keep your brain in top condition

Researchers at Penn's School of Medicine found that learning to play an instrument is ideal for engaging every significant part of the nervous system. The process of learning taps into the right and left-hand sides of the brain using the visual, auditory and emotional senses simultaneously, and it's this that gives the brain an all-over workout.

It will lower your stress levels

Studies also show that playing a musical instrument can help lower your blood pressure, reduce stress and help with anxiety and depression. The study commissioned by Spotify revealed that 89% of adults playing a musical instrument say it positively impacted their mental health. The study was conducted as part of a podcast during the Covid lockdown. Four hundred people were gifted ukuleles and taught how to play them to show how powerful music can be in a crisis.

It will boost a range of executive brain functions

Studies have also shown children and adults with musical training have heightened skills in executive functioning. Executive functions (EF) are high-level cognitive processes that enable us to process and retain information, regulate behaviours, make good choices, and solve problems. Executive functioning is also a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ, so learning an instrument has substantial educational benefits, no matter what your age.

And if you're concerned about mental alertness, research from a University of Montreal study found that musical training can enhance spatial reasoning, verbal memory, and literacy skills.

It can help with language skills

It seems music and languages do go hand in hand. A study from the University of Liverpool found that musical training increases blood flow in the brain's left hemisphere. This suggests that the areas responsible for music and language might share common brain pathways.

While neuroscientists at Northwestern University found that people with a better sense of rhythm show more consistent brain responses to speech than those with less rhythm, both findings suggest that musical training could sharpen the brain's response to languages.

It will help with concentration

Concentration levels can wane with age as we try new things less and less. By comparison, adults who try new skills, including playing a musical instrument, test higher on achievement tests. This is because playing an instrument means focusing on many factors simultaneously, rhythm, tempo, and technical and physical challenges. You cannot do this without concentrating, so learning an instrument helps to fine-tune and build this skill.

How to get started

Find the right music teacher. A good music tutor is key to the success and enjoyment of lessons. This is why it's essential to find a tutor/teacher experienced with adult learners. Teaching music to adults is a different process from teaching children.

Choose an instrument you are interested in. Think about the type of music you like, what pieces of music you would like to play and if the instrument you have chosen is practical for practising at home. Also, remember that the learning curve for different instruments varies hugely, so if in doubt, get advice first.

Set realistic expectations for yourself. It takes time, effort and practice to play an instrument, so don't set yourself goals and expect progress to be fast. Learning a musical instrument is a long journey, and you need to schedule a time slot of at least 30 to 60 minutes for daily practice.

Listen to music. Listening to lots of music can help you contextualise the pieces you learn and make music easier to understand. You will start to see similarities in musical structures and melodies.