The benefits of playing a musical instrument are well-documented for one’s cognitive development, and these advantages extend to individuals of all ages. Engaging in musical activities has been associated with several positive effects on cognitive function, mental well-being and overall brain health – and it can all begin from a young age. Let’s take a look at how music and brain development go hand-in-hand, including the benefits of learning to play an instrument through the various stages of life.

Starting young

Research has shown that there are several positive benefits associated with musical training, especially when considering early childhood development. Musical training has also been associated with enhanced reading abilities. The skills involved in reading, such as decoding, phonological awareness and auditory processing, can be positively influenced by musical education.

A young child who undergoes musical training often shows improvements in cognitive skills and verbal memory, which involves the ability to remember and recall words and information. These are all key factors in language development.

In recent years, music programs have supported students’ emotional wellness, especially in times of crisis – namely the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns that followed. A study in the International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education asked, “How does an inclusive music program support the well-being of children living in areas of multiple deprivation during COVID?” and collected information through comic strips, interviews, focus groups and questionnaires.

Researchers found that participation in the arts provided stability and a sense of trust and security during uncertain times and had a positive impact on children’s overall well-being. They also emphasized the importance of the role that music lessons and arts programs play in society, despite facing cuts to funding.

Overall, children that receive music instruction do better in reading, executive functions, verbal memory and second language pronunciation. Playing an instrument as a child can even predict a person's IQ and academic success in their early adult years.

However, it’s worth noting that the specific duration and intensity of musical training, as well as individual differences, can play a role in the extent of these benefits. Presenting a child with an instrument will not turn them into a junior Beethoven overnight, and their level of desire for participating will also play a major role in how successful they are in their musical journey.

Benefits for an aging demographic

The benefits of playing a musical instrument do not end with childhood. There is evidence to suggest that playing an instrument can contribute to maintaining a healthy brain and potentially reducing the risk of dementia and overall cognitive decline as individuals age.

An analysis of an aging UK cohort in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry has re-affirmed the potential that musical education holds as a means of harnessing cognitive reserve as part of a protective lifestyle for brain health.

With increased life-expectancy estimates, age-associated cognitive deficits and dementia loom large. Keeping the brain active is of the utmost importance, and learning to play a musical instrument engages adults’ various cognitive functions, including memory, attention and problem-solving.

Regardless of age, the act of playing music involves coordination between the senses and motor skills, and this multisensory engagement is thought to have positive effects on brain function, brain plasticity and connectivity. Furthermore, participating in musical activities, whether through solo practice or group performances, often involves social interaction. Social engagement has been associated with better cognitive health and a lower risk of dementia.

Playing a musical instrument is one of many activities that may contribute to keeping the brain healthy one ages, but it's part of a broader approach to maintaining a healthy lifestyle for optimal cognitive function.

The instrumental role of music

It is important to note that the extent of these positive impacts can vary depending on factors such as the intensity and duration of musical training, the age at which one starts learning, and individual differences. Overall, playing a musical instrument is a complex and rewarding activity that engages multiple cognitive functions and can contribute to the overall health and plasticity of the brain.

Incorporating musical activities, such as playing an instrument, into one's lifestyle can contribute to healthy aging by positively influencing cognitive function, emotional well-being, and social engagement. It's never too early or late to start learning and reap the benefits that music can offer for overall well-being, especially in the later stages of life.