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Research shows that learning to play an instrument as a child delivers mental health benefits as an adult

School Orchestra
(Image credit: Getty)

Learning to play an instrument is no mean feat and it’s an established fact that the sooner you start – while your brain and agile fingers are still malleable and up for it – the sooner you'll crack it and the sooner a lifetime of loving music (and being just that little bit cooler than anyone else) can start.

What isn’t so well known is that the neural pathways you can open up as a child, learning tricky guitar fingering, reaching for complex chords and shapes on a piano and rapidly mentally processing written notation into physical action, can lead to a sharper, more capable mind in later years.

Yes, just as a regular workout will keep your mind and body in good shape, so it seems that taxing the cerebrum via the noble art of music making provides similar benefits. A paper produced by the University of Edinburgh has identified greater lifetime-long improvements on tests for cognitive ability for those people who did learn to play an instrument, versus those who did not.

What’s more, even when factors such as education, childhood cognitive ability, social status and health in older age were taken into account, musicians still gained an uplift in mental skills that can be directly attributed to their love of music. 

The study’s participants were part of a test on individuals born in Edinburgh and the Lothians, in Scotland in 1936. All had previously taken part in the Scottish Mental Survey of 1947 and as such had their results on file allowing a direct comparison between their performance then and now. 

Each retook the cognitive ability test they took as an 11 year old, including tests on verbal reasoning, spatial awareness and numerical analysis. They were also asked about their musical experience and the team then used statistical models to seek out links between their changes in thinking skills between 11 and 70 and their level of experience in playing a musical instrument.

Of the 336 participants 117 had some experience of playing a musical instrument at some point in their childhood and it was this group that demonstrated the best results with small but notable changes being directly attributable to their musical skill.

“These results add to the evidence that activities that are mentally challenging, such as learning to play a musical instrument, might be associated with better thinking skills,” says Judith Okely, a lecturer in psychology at Napier University. While Katie Overy, senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh’s Reid School of Music, said: “Music has so much to offer as a fun, social activity. It is exciting to find that learning to play a musical instrument may also contribute to healthy cognitive ageing.”

The study was funded by Age UK and the Economic and Social Research Council and was published in the journal Psychological Science.

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