What Happens to Our Brains when We Learn Music?

Let’s start with the basics. What is music? At its core, all music is is just different forms of rhythmic structure and pitch variant. When we begin learning how to play an instrument, we start a type of training that is a multi-sensory motor experience. Playing an instrument requires skills that include reading a complex symbolic system (sheet music), and translating that system into a motor activity that is heavily dependent on multi-sensory feedback. Musicians are also required to develop fine motor skills, memorize long musical passages, and improvise within given musical parameters. Music sight-reading calls for the simultaneous and sequential processing of a vast amount of information in a very brief time for immediate use. This kind of task requires the interpretation of pitch variant (what note you play) and rhythmic structure (how long you play that note). As you can gather, there is an immense amount of cognitive functions required to play music. This increased amount of neural activity in turn promotes myelination. Myelination is the process of coating the axon of each neuron with a fatty coating (called myelin), which protects the neuron and helps it conduct signals more efficiently. Check out this quick explanation of how music affects myelination:

To put it simply, people who listen to and play a lot of music have enhanced reading and literacy skills, reasoning, and mathematical abilities. Learning to play a musical instrument is one of the best things you can do for your brain at any age. Adolescent-centered studies show that even very basic rhythm abilities, such as tapping to a beat, relate with reading skills, and there is initial evidence for how both abilities may rely on common underlying neural mechanisms of sound processing. Playing an instrument as a kid leads to a sharper mind in old age, according to a new study conducted by Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, a clinical neuropsychologist in Emory’s Department of neurology, and her colleagues. The researchers gave 70 people between the ages of 60 and 83 a battery of tests to measure memory and other cognitive abilities. The researchers found that those who had played an instrument for a decade or longer scored significantly higher on the tests than those with no musical background. Studies have also demonstrated that music enhances the memory of Alzheimer's and dementia patients, including a study conducted at UC Irvine, which showed that scores on memory tests of Alzheimer's patients improved when they listened to classical music. The effects of learning an instrument are powerful, and will last a lifetime.