Turns out Mom and Dad were right: Those piano lessons and the endless hours in school band practice were good for you. From making you smarter to diminishing the effects of brain aging to improving emotional stability, it seems playing an instrument has a hand in reconfiguring your brain and enhancing it — permanently. And to be clear: Just listening to music doesn't cut it. It's the active work of bringing sounds to life that delivers the biggest benefit.
Researchers are still discovering all the ways that making music enriches your brain, but the impact is undeniable. So dust off that old guitar from college. Unpack your grade-school clarinet. Join a neighborhood jam or kick back at home, just you and your favorite instrument. And by all means encourage your kids to learn to play music, too, as it will be bring all the benefits below plus critical thinking skills.
Here are several reasons why you'll all be glad you did.
1. Enriches connections between the left and right brain
Studies have found music makers have more white matter in their corpus callosum, the bundle of neural wires connecting the brain's two hemispheres. This means greater communication between the left and right sides of the brain, which in turn may translate into numerous cerebral benefits, including faster communication within the brain and greater creative problem-solving abilities. Not all instrumentalists reap these cognitive advantages equally, however. Both age and amount of playing time matter. Research suggests kids who practice more seem to build a greater bridge between the two sides of the brain. Plus, those who start earlier— around age 7 is ideal — benefit more than later starters.
2. Boosts executive brain function
More white matter may be why people with musical training tend to be better at making decisions, processing and retaining information, and adjusting course based on changing mental demands. That's good news for musicians, because these executive brain functions likely contribute more to academic success than IQ does. Some researchers even speculate playing an instrument could prove beneficial in helping kids with neurological problems that involve executive functioning, including ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
3. Strengthens speech processing
It's no surprise that making music helps your brain process musical sounds. But tickling the ivories or strumming guitar strings also aids in processing consonant and vowel sounds in speech. A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that kindergartners who play piano can distinguish between different pitches and therefore are better at telling the difference between spoken words. Children in the study who played piano were significantly better at discriminating between words that differed by only one consonant.
"There are positive benefits to piano education in young kids, and it looks like for recognizing differences between sounds including speech sounds, it’s better than extra reading," said senior study author Robert Desimone.
A study from Northwestern University also supports the theory that music can help young children process words. Researchers measured brain performance in low-income kids who attended the Harmony Project, an after-school music program in Los Angeles. Kids who had two years of music instruction were able to process many more speech sounds — and with greater precision — than those who only had one year of instruction. Researchers speculate that music and speech share common characteristics — pitch, timing and timbre — and that the brain relies on the same neural pathways to process both. Sharper language skills, including reading, may in turn help kids learn better in all subjects, from math to social studies. A case in point is Harmony Project itself: More than 90% of its graduates have gone on to college since 2008, while the drop-out rate in the neighborhoods the children come from is 50% or higher.
4. Magnifies memory
Related to speech processing, those with musical training are also better at remembering spoken words (verbal memory). A study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience found that second-graders in Germany who spent 45 minutes a week learning a musical instrument recalled more words recited to them than kids who received no musical training or those who spent the same amount of time in science class. Music-making also seems to boost working memory — the ability to temporarily store and use information that helps you reason, learn or complete a complex task.
5. Promotes empathy
Musical training doesn't just upgrade your brain's sound-processing centers; it also lifts its capacity to detect emotions in sound. That is, musicians may be better at reading subtle emotional cues in conversation. In turn, this could equip them for smoother, more emotionally rich relationships. If true, musical training also bodes well for helping kids with emotional-perception problems, such as autism.
6. Slows brain aging
Brain gains made from playing an instrument apparently don't wane as you age. Studies show that speech-processing and memory benefits extend well into your golden years — even if your musical training stopped after childhood. A Canadian study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that older people who had musical training when they were young could identify speech 20% faster than those with no training. In another study published in Neuropsychology, people aged 60 to 83 who had studied music for at least 10 years remembered more sensory information, including auditory, visual and tactile data, than those who studied for nine years or less. Both groups scored higher than people who had never learned an instrument.
7. Fosters math and science ability
Musical notes, chords, octaves, rhythm and meter can all be understood mathematically. So playing music should raise your math game, right? The research is mixed, but there seems to be an underlying correlation between music-making and better math skills. For instance, a study published in the Journal of Neurology Research found that preschoolers who got keyboard lessons performed better on a test of spatial-temporal reasoning (the ability to mentally envision spatial patterns and understand how they fit together) than kids who got computer instruction or those who didn't participate in either activity. Researchers think elevated spatial-temporal reasoning leads to better math and science performance.
As researchers continue digging into these connections, the link is becoming clearer. A study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology added yet another area of benefit. In a study of about 110,000 students in British Columbia, those who took at least one instrumental music course fared better on exams for not only math and science, but also English — and it wasn't just a little bit better. Students who were highly engaged in music were, on average, academically more than one year ahead of the peers not engaged in school music.
8. Improves motor skills
We know playing an instrument requires good hand-eye-ear coordination (getting hands and fingers to translate musical notes on a page into sound). And for music-makers who start young enough, those heightened musical motor skills seem to translate into other areas of life as well. Researchers at Concordia University in Montreal found that adult musicians who started playing before age 7 had better timing on a non-music motor-skill task than those who started music lessons later. What's more, their superior motor abilities showed up in their brains. Scans revealed stronger neural connections in motor regions that help with imagining and carrying out physical movements.
9. Elevates mental health
Studies suggest fiddlers, saxophonists, keyboardists and other instrumentalists are more focused and less prone to aggression, depression and anger than non-musicians. In fact, creating music seems to prime their brains for heightened emotional control and concentration. In one study, researchers examined brain scans of kids aged 6 to 18. Those who played an instrument had a thicker brain cortex in regions that regulate emotions, anxiety levels and the capacity to pay attention (meaning they had superior abilities in these areas). Other studies suggest making music also relieves stress. In other words, musicians may suffer from fewer stress-related psychological and physical symptoms, including burnout, headaches, high blood pressure and lower immune function.
10. Sharpens self-esteem
Not surprisingly, mental-health gains from musical mastery (and maybe the camaraderie of playing with others) transfers into greater feelings of self-worth. In a study published in the Psychology of Music, kids who received three years of weekly piano lessons scored higher on a measure of self-esteem than kids who received no musical instruction. Another study of Florida secondary schools suggested at-risk kids who participated in a music-performance group at school felt less alienated and more successful.
As the research on the benefit of playing music keeps rolling in, perhaps we should all sit down at the piano or dig that old instrument out of the closet. Of course, if you never learned how to play, the best news is that it's never too late to start.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in April 2015.