Music is one of the oldest art forms and is found in virtually all corners of the world. It’s enjoyable, relaxing, symbolic, and often has significant cultural or religious ties, but did you know playing an instrument has tremendous mental health benefits? It can boost your mood, improve cognitive performance, reduce anxiety and stress, and increase memory function, among other perks.
The idea of learning a musical instrument might seem daunting, but the great news is you don’t have to be an experienced or skilled musician to reap mental health rewards. It turns out picking one up for the first time — or for the first time in a long time — and learning to play is also beneficial.
Better yet, you’re never too young or too old to learn and you don’t necessarily need to possess any special skills ― just commitment, a willingness to learn, and patience. In an increasingly “plugged in” world in which stress levels are on the rise, now is a wonderful time to consider learning an instrument.
Here are a few of the ways picking up this hobby improves your mental health.
1. It reduces stress and anxiety.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), the leading cause of mental illness in the United States is anxiety. More than 40 million Americans ages 18 and up, or approximately 18% of the adult population, have debilitating anxiety disorders.
Stress affects the entire body, from negatively impacting your thoughts to increasing your blood pressure. Learning to play an instrument requires all your concentration, which naturally creates a state of mindfulness and gives you a sense of calm. That calming sensation helps shift negative thoughts and energy into something more positive, in turn alleviating stress. If you’ve ever heard someone use the term “escape” or “getaway” in reference to their favorite hobby, this is exactly what they were talking about.
2. Learning music combats depression.
The ADAA also reports that depression is the number one cause of disability for people aged 15 to 44 in the United States. It affects more than16 million American adults, or roughly 6.7% of the adult population. These numbers should come as no surprise, as it’s extremely common for a person with an anxiety disorder to also be suffering from depression. In fact, approximately 50% of those diagnosed with depression also have diagnosed anxiety disorders.
Fortunately, learning an instrument helps to combat depression in the same ways that it reduces anxiety and stress. Just listening to music can instantly elevate your mood, as it boosts the brain’s production of dopamine — the “happy hormone” — and lowers the “stress hormone” cortisol. Evidence shows these benefits are further increased because playing music is more immersive than listening to it.
3. It improves memory function.
Think of learning to play an instrument like going to the gym, but for your brain. Consistently “working out” your brain by practicing challenges and stimulates it in many of the ways that exercising does for your body. Your brain benefits from learning and practicing new music skills the way you see physical improvements when you work out regularly, for example.
Learning an instrument is a particularly unique skill because it requires both sides of the brain. The left side controls logic-based tasks, while the right side performs more creative tasks. Using both simultaneously dramatically strengthens memory retention and recall, making music therapy a common treatment for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. There is no known cure for either disease, but music therapy has proven helpful in alleviating their symptoms.
4. Learning to play music teaches patience.
It’s true that patience is a virtue and let’s be honest, patience is a skill most of us could stand to improve. It doesn’t matter how old or experienced a person is, he or she still has to learn new notes, chords, keys, to read music, and a number of other skills.
We’ve all heard of music greats like Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin, but the reality is that very few people in the world can simply pick up an instrument and play flawlessly. Practice really does make perfect, and the more effort and time you put into learning an instrument, the better your results. This is an important life skill that translates to so many other things. For example, according to PBS, “A music-rich experience for children of singing, listening and moving is really bringing a very serious benefit to children as they progress into more formal learning.”
5. Learning a musical instrument increases mental sharpness.
Or brains age as we do and physically shrink in volume over time, a factor that can impact our mental health. Even the healthiest, most active brains become slower to process information, recall memories, and react to situations as they age. Learning to play a musical instrument can slow and counteract this process by sharpening overall function. A 2017 study conducted by the University of Montreal in Canada found ongoing musical training enhances the brain’s multisensory processes and notably decreases reaction time to multi-sensory stimulation.
Other Music-Related Mental Health Benefits
There is further evidence that learning an instrument directly correlates to a higher likelihood of academic success in both young children and adults. This goes back to the fact that both sides of the brain are involved in learning and playing music, which improves abstract reasoning and problem-solving skills, helps retain information, and contributes to making better decisions.
There are already so many reasons to love music, and the mental health perks mean there are now even more reasons to learn to play it. Consider improving your mental health by learning an instrument, regardless of how old you are or what chapter of your life you’re in.
The great news is that it all starts with a single lesson.
Sloan School of Music in Hagerstown, Maryland, offers private and group music lessons for all ages and experience levels. Choose from guitar, piano, ukulele, violin, drums, and more, including voice lessons. We also have an instrument and gear shop for anyone looking to buy a new — or your first! — instrument.