The Science And Reality Of Learning An Instrument

Updated: May 6



Have you been playing an instrument from a rather young age? Say, younger than seven? If you have, studies show that you're at a huge advantage when it comes to early stages of mental development. Let’s say you’re someone who began playing an instrument when you were older than seven, you're still at a huge advantage. Playing an instrument, despite the age, has been shown to demonstrate huge improvements in mental functioning and capabilities.

To begin, what are the obvious positives of learning an instrument for an individual? The 'Peterson Family Foundation' states that there are generally ten major benefits, some of which include improvements in math, reading and comprehension abilities, an improvement in bodily coordination, and an improvement of both listening and social skills [1]. This makes quite a lot of sense. Your social skills will benefit hugely because you have to interact with a teacher once a week, and even more so if you’ve been playing in a youth orchestra. Math, reading and comprehension improve drastically due to the need to pay attention to every detail on a music score (because, like math, the smallest mistake in music, can change everything).

To get just a little more scientific and factual, there are plenty of studies released on the internet on the relationship between learning to play a musical instrument and the development of the human brain.

To start off, I have a quote from Anita Collins, “Did you know that every time musicians pick up their instruments, there are fireworks going off all over their brain?” [2] When a person begins to listen to music, their entire brain comes to life. This is quite a different response to when people engage in other activities like reading, painting, solving problems and simply just thinking in general. When you begin listening to music, your brain starts to pull apart all of the different elements involved (melody, harmony, rhythm, etc…) and then piece it back together in a matter of seconds. Maybe you have very little musical experience, yet in just one moment, you’re tapping away to the beat of a song you’ve never heard before, and you manage to sing the new lyrics in the following chorus. For the brain to pull apart the complexity of a piece of music, it takes an immense amount of effort. This is why meditation music should fundamentally be really slow, repetitive and simple – often just one progression of sounds.

How does this differ to actually playing the instrument, or playing in an orchestra or band? Mentally, you have to work harder again. Playing an instrument is said to be a “full body workout” for the brain, having to integrate coordination, reading, listening, interpretation, creativity (especially for jazz musicians), and long periods of concentration all in one go. This is then coupled with a musician's necessity to be able to control their nerves, forget about any insecurities they have, and obtain absolute self control and discipline in their daily lives to sit and play without end (which you’d have to do as a professional musician). This is obviously much more tasking for your mind, and that is to be expected, “I like to give the analogy that you’re not going to become physically fit just by watching sports” stated Nina Klaus, director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory [3].

Academically, learning an instrument has been shown to put some students ahead of their peers. “Morrison (1994), using data from the National Centre for Educational Statistics representing over 13,000 students, showed that high school students who participated in music reported higher grades in English, mathematics, history, and science than those who did not participate” [4]. These results were observed across several different studies and research (icluding Trent (1996), Cardarelli (2003) and Fitzpatrick (2006), to name just a few.

Studies have come to mention, that learning an instrument has been shown to also affect the personality of an individual, his/her emotional intelligence, self expression, and - as I mentioned earlier – insecurities [5]. Altogether, the benefits are best summarised in the following statement, “Burton, Horowitz and Abeles (1999) described a taxonomy of eight general areas which may be relevant, including the opportunity to express ideas and emotions; enhanced and focused perception; the opportunity to make connections and to observe layered and complex relationships between diverse forms of knowledge; and being able to construct and organise new meanings, to perceive and understand various points of view, to imagine new possibilities, and to provide opportunities for sensory learning.” [6]. How about when you’re learning an instrument later in life, are these effects the same? Yes. But to a lesser degree – understandably. However, there is still a huge increase in the brain's development, in comparison with someone who never played.

Despite all of these studies, I don’t think this is an adequate excuse to learn to play an instrument.

Learning an instrument is an extremely difficult thing to do – especially the ones like guitar and piano. For someone who only began learning to play the piano later in life, you have to build all of the coordination and everything that comes with it, when your brain is - or is almost - fully developed. This can be done, but from my own experience, it is really difficult. Unfortunately, learning an instrument at later stages means that some of the neurological pathways which would form in a child, you miss out on. Therefore, most of us who learn later will never be as good as those who began as kids. But, this doesn’t mean that we aren’t any good at all. We’re just not going to be the virtuoso – but we can still play for a profession.

The contributor to this article is a Singer Songwriter called Cara Beth, and she has been learning instruments all of her life. Starting with guitar, she moved onto other instruments like ukulele, vocals, bass, piano, tin whistle, mandolin, and cajon. Socially, she describes herself as a rather out-going person; “So I’d say I’m definitely an extrovert... I thrive off being with others and being social, especially in musical settings and with other like-minded people.” On guitar she’s preparing grade 8, on piano, grade 3, and ukulele, grade 6. Apart from piano and guitar, the remaining instruments she has taught herself to play. We have quite a diverse musical genius here.

On the topic of the difficulty of learning a new instrument, this is what Cara Beth had to say:


“I think if you want something enough that it isn’t impossible. I’ve found that because of my passion in music it’s been made easier. I don’t need to be willing to sit down and learn something new, and I don’t feel like I need a will to do it”. So, for someone who loves learning music, it’s not a chore. If you’re learning the instrument just to be better at math, the likely-hood of your success is really low. You have to truly play music for its own sake.

Cara Beth has stated that the link between learning an instrument and being good at other subjects is hard to find because she needs to do well in the other subjects anyway, in order to get to where she wants to be. The science states the benefits of learning an instrument on other academic subjects, but that doesn’t really prove to be relevant. If you need to be strong at math to get into university, well generally you’d make sure you get your sums right – whether you involve music or not.

She also states that it doesn’t really matter to her whether or not playing an instrument helps her to excel in other subjects. As long as she does well in music, and gets the results she needs for her university studies, nothing else matters. This is quite an important insight; here are all of the benefits of learning an instrument from a young age, when the real benefit is having learned to play the instrument itself. Cara Beth says, “from the second I decided I wanted to go into music as a career, nothing else has mattered. The day I opened my GCSE results the first thing I looked for was music, the second was Math and English, and anything else was a bonus.”

To conclude this article, there are huge benefits to learning an instrument – especially the younger you are. However, as Cara Beth has pointed out, it has to be done for it’s own sake, otherwise you’ll get nowhere. The real benefits to learning an instrument will be seen in the Musical community, rather than the English and History community.

Thank you very much for reading the article. I would like to close with one last quote from today's article contributor, “It’s just so important to me that I don’t spend tonnes of time on anything outside of music itself.” This really serves as a reference to anyone and what means a lot to them. You need to know what it is that truly matters to you, and make it your life. Make it what you stand for. This is what Cara Beth has done, and that’s why it is very likely that she is going to go on to make a comfortable career for herself in the field that matters most to her - music. Thank you.


For anyone who would like to know a little more about Cara Beth, head to the contributors page, where you can read her profile. You can also head to her social media links, and take a look everything she has been doing in relation to her early musical career. The links will be below.


If anyone wants to listen to the full conversation between myself and Cara Beth, head to Interconnected's Audio Forum.

If you have an idea, question or topic you would like me to research, review and write about, I would truly love to. Please don’t hesitate to reach out and ask me – it would be my pleasure. If anyone would like to contribute to an article on any particular topic please let me know, I would love to work with you.


Jack, at Interconnected.


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Cara Bath's Social Media:


Facebook: just search @carabethmusic

Instagram: @carabethmusic

You can find out a little more about Cara Beth by reading her article here


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[1]: https://petersonfamilyfoundation.org/music-therapy/10-benefits-children-learning-musical-instrument/

[2]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0JKCYZ8hng

[3]: https://time.com/3634995/study-kids-engaged-music-class-for-benefits-northwestern/

[4]: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/nov/12/music-lessons-early-childhood-brain-performance

[5] & [6]: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/british-journal-of-music-education/article/impact-of-instrumental-music-learning-on-attainment-at-age-16-a-pilot-study/F439F0A77A79858988B66C172FF5CC72



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