Why do we play music? For most of the answer is, “I do it for fun and enjoyment.”
Here’s another reason people start playing an instrument: they want to upgrade their thinking.
How does learning music upgrade your thinking?
Here are some cognitive processes that improve as you learn and practice an instrument.
- Awareness of mind and body
- Lowers anxiety
- Aligns you with the present moment
- More emotional intelligence
- Improves your ability to learn
- Nurtures a growth mindset
Games are more fun than textbooks
There’s a ton of research on how music improves mental and emotional functioning. In a nutshell, music activates a broad range of areas in the brain. Learn more here and here. But it also makes intuitive sense. We’d rather play a game than read a textbook.
Knowing this is helpful if you’re a music student. Next time you’re practicing and you feel frustrated, remember that your brain is expanding. If you stick with it, you’ll become a little bit smarter. Your neurons will be better connected.
You also become more emotionally intelligent when learning an instrument. You become aware of resistance. You become more intimate with the feelings of frustration and doubt, which helps you deal with them.
You learn to accept the small failures and celebrate the small wins.
Music helps your memory
Learning an instrument is an opportunity to strengthen your memory. Not only will you get better at remembering melodies, but you’ll get better at recalling them. A simple technique for helping recall is “Fingerprinting”. After you practice a tune like Arkansas Traveller, say the title out loud, then play the beginning of each part. Practice something else. After that, see if you can still do the fingerprint for Arkansas Traveller.
Learn more here: How to remember lots of fiddle tunes
Music puts you into a state of flow
Flow is a state of mind between boredom and anxiety. The very act of practice reduces anxiety and fear. When you’re in flow, you’re aligned with the present moment.
Music trains you to move through different levels of focus
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You can start on a single tune, and increase the strength of the microscope until you’re practicing just two notes. Then you can expand to a bigger picture and connect the tune to other tunes, scales and styles.
Music forms new connections in the brain
When you practice a piece of music, you’re continuously connecting different mental and physical skills. For example if you play a melody on the violin and then sing it, you activate a different parts of the brain and body.
Learning music connects different ideas, which means more connections in the brain. For example, if you originally learned Breton Gavotte in B minor (starting on A1), you can forge a new neural connection by playing it in E minor (starting on D1).
Music puts you into a growth mindset
In order learn and play music, you need to adopt a beginner’s mind. This can become challenging as you get better. It’s what I call the “Intermediate Pitfall”.
I suggest that next time you’re feeling totally frustrated or doubtful, look at it as learning opportunity. Each challenge is just the next level in the game.
As you improve these cognitive processes through music, they carry over to other aspects of your life.
- As your ability to focus improves, you get better at focusing at your job.
- As you get better at remembering the names of tunes, you get better at remembering people’s names.
- As you develop a growth mindset to learn music, you carry this over to your relationships, exercise and business.
Action step: always have something in the “Can’t do column.”
Some people learn an instrument purely because it’s fun, while some do it to enhance their mental functioning. But really these two motivations are just different sides of the same coin. If you’re having fun, then you’re learning. And if you’re learning you’re probably having fun.