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The Connection Between Playing an Instrument and Memory Function

how do instruments improve memory

Maybe you like playing an instrument for the sheer joy it brings you, but playing an instrument also offers all kinds of benefits, like:

 

  • Improving reading and comprehension
  • Better coordination
  • Sharpening concentration; and
  • Teaching discipline

 

Did you know that playing an instrument can help strengthen your memory, too?

 

Learn about how playing an instrument can improve your memory, no matter your age or musical experience.

Does Playing Instruments Improve Memory?

Yes! 

 

The physical act of playing musical instruments, as opposed to merely listening to music, can improve memory. That’s because of the many connections that happen across the hemispheres of the brain when we play a musical instrument.

 

According to the journal publication, “Instruments of Knowledge: Music and the Brain,” Anne Stoklosa writes, “Recent studies show that neurophysiological distinction is trained when a child actively learns to play an instrument. This is great for developing brains because as the brain is still maturing, it rewires the normal course of neuronal communication to be more elaborate in connecting the left. Playing an instrument involves the interconnectedness between the motor, sensory, auditory, visual, and emotional components of the central and peripheral nervous systems.” 

does playing instruments improve memory

How Does Playing an Instrument Help Your Memory?

It’s all about the brain — that amazing organ in our bodies that acts as the control system for all our body’s functions. 

 

Playing an instrument involves various brain processes that happen at the same time. For example, playing the piano involves engaging in simultaneous …

 

  • Motor
  • Auditory
  • Visual; and
  • Sensory

 

… processes that strengthen connections across the hemispheres of the brain, resulting in a stronger brain. 

 

Just like exercising and weight lifting strengthen physical muscles, playing an instrument strengthens your brain, often resulting in improved memory.

 

Playing an instrument improves memory by:

 

  1. Engaging the central nervous system
  2. Positively changing brain structure
  3. Increasing gray matter

 

Let’s dive a little deeper into each of these activities to better understand how playing a musical instrument and improved memory are related.

Engages the Entire Central Nervous System

The nervous system can be divided into two main parts:

 

  1. The central nervous system, which is made up of the brain and spinal cord
  2. The peripheral nervous system, which is made up of the nerves that branch off the spinal cord and extend throughout the body

 

Playing an instrument engages both parts of the nervous system.

 

For example, let’s consider playing the violin. 

 

To play this string instrument, the musician engages the central nervous system by using both sides of the brain. Researchers have found playing an instrument can increase verbal memory and memory power because it involves using both sides of your brain. 

 

Not only are both hemispheres of the brain involved in playing an instrument, but different sections of the brain have particular functions that are enhanced by playing an instrument. A few examples include:

 

  • The corpus callosum is the part of the brain that allows the hemispheres to communicate with each other. It enables a piano player to see the notes on a page and translate it to the act of striking the correct keys on the piano keyboard.
  • Broca’s area is the part of the brain that helps us speak and allows musicians to express music.

 

The peripheral nervous system controls the musician’s gross and fine motor skills, especially when the musician does one thing with the right hand while doing something different with the left hand.

 

Playing an instrument also taps into the brain’s executive function, which deals with tasks like: 

 

  • Processing
  • Retaining information; and 
  • Making decisions

 

This aspect of brain function is seen in a musician’s ability to play music, while at the same time looking ahead to the portion of music they will play next.

 

Unlike other types of memory-building exercises, playing an instrument involves complex and complete sensory input. Whether a musician is playing the violin, piano, or trumpet, they are simultaneously joining input together from a variety of senses, including …

 

  • Hearing
  • Touch
  • Vision; and
  • Emotions

 

… which results in a thorough workout for the brain.

 

But how does this help improve memory? 

 

All this activity in the brain is like exercise — it helps your brain function more optimally and aids in boosting brain connectivity.

Positively Changes Brain Structure

Studies comparing brain scans of musicians and non-musicians show that the corpus callosum is larger in musicians. In addition, the parts of the brain responsible for movement and hearing are larger in professional piano players.

 

In a 1995 study, neurologist and neuroscientist, Gottfried Schlaug, found musicians who began playing an instrument before age seven had a thick corpus callosum, pointing to the idea that playing a musical instrument can strengthen neural connections.

 

In the end, scientists performing these studies concluded that musical training helped produce more positive structural changes and improved brain function.

Increases Gray Matter in the Brain

Gray matter in the brain gets its color from the many neurons concentrated in that area. Besides helping people control movements and emotions, the gray matter in the brain also is responsible for memory retention.

 

Playing an instrument involves using areas of the brain responsible for auditory, motor, and visual-spatial processes, leading scientists to conclude that musicians have more gray matter than non-musicians.

 

In 2003, Christian Gaser and Gottfried Schlaug performed a study that showeda pattern of differences in the gray matter distribution between professional musicians, amateur musicians, and non-musicians that involve motor, auditory, and visual regions.”

playing an instrument and memory

The Effects of Learning To Play an Instrument on Different Types of Memory

A study performed in 2017 aimed to show whether musicians had better memories than non-musicians. The results of the study showed that “musicians performed better than non-musicians in terms of long-term memory, short-term memory, and working memory.”

Long-Term Memory

As we’ve already discussed above, playing an instrument can increase gray matter, strengthen the connections in the brain, and activate the parts of the brain associated with memory, speech, emotion, and visual-spatial processes. 

 

All of these seem to contribute to better long-term memory.

 

In the 2017 study referenced above, researchers found musicians generally “performed better than non-musicians in verbal learning and recall tasks.”

Short-Term Memory

The same study also showed musicians performed better than non-musicians when it came to short-term memory.

 

When asked to reproduce sequences of numbers, letters, words, or other types of sequences, musicians performed better than non-musicians. 

Working Memory

Working memory is “the small amount of information that can be held in mind and used in the execution of cognitive tasks, in contrast with long-term memory, the vast amount of information saved in one’s life.”

 

In a study in Chile, Dr. Leonie Kausel tested the working memory of 40 children between the ages of ten to thirteen. Half the children played an instrument, and half the children did not play an instrument or have musical training. While assessing working memory via a working memory task, brain activity was monitored using magnetic resonance imaging. The results showed that those who played an instrument “did significantly better on the memory task.”

 

This study and the 2017 study previously mentioned point to the idea that playing an instrument can increase working memory and decrease the impacts of working memory overload.

how do instruments improve memory

2 Factors That May Determine if Playing an Instrument Will Help Your Memory

#1: The Age You Begin to Study

Will an adult musician who began playing the violin at age three have a better memory than a musician who has only been playing for a few years?

 

Studies suggest the age at which musical lessons began and the intensity of the training affect the change in the musician’s brain. 

 

In a study performed in 2013, researchers studied 44 adults with various levels of musical training. The adults were divided into groups according to training, as follows:

 

  • No training
  • One to three years of training; and
  • Four to fourteen years of training

 

The researchers found those with the most training “displayed the fastest neural timing.”

(But, There Are Memory Benefits at Every Age)

Just because you didn’t learn to play an instrument at a young age doesn’t mean you can’t still benefit from the memory-enhancing advantages of music training. 

 

In the journal article, “Music Training: An Antidote for Aging?” Dr. Nina Kraus and Dr. Samira Anderson wrote, “Adults age 60 to 85 without previous musical experience exhibited improved processing speed and memory after just three months of weekly 30-minute piano lessons and three hours a week of practice…”

 

If you’re an older adult and want to experience the memory benefits playing an instrument can deliver, Northwest School of Music offers instrument lessons for all ages.

 

Choose from a variety of instruments, including:

 

  • Piano
  • Violin
  • Viola
  • Cello
  • Guitar
  • And more

#2: How Long You Play Your Instrument

Maybe you began taking piano lessons as a child but didn’t stick with it very long. Can those short-lived lessons still contribute to increased memory?

 

The surprising answer is yes! 

 

Studies by Dr. Larry Sherman show that even after only 15 months of lessons as a child, structural changes in the brain are evident. 

Northwest School of Music: Learn To Play an Instrument Today To Prolong Your Memory for the Future

Playing an instrument delivers all kinds of benefits, including memory retention. 

 

Offering a variety of instrument lessons, Northwest School of Music can help you take advantage of these benefits yourself or make them available to your child. 

 

Our team of experienced and qualified instructors offers a variety of programs and lessons to choose from, including:

 

  • Piano
  • Voice
  • Violin
  • Viola
  • Cello
  • Guitar
  • Ukulele
  • Choir
  • Kinder Music
  • And more

 

Founded in 2006, Northwest School of Music exists to provide quality music education to children and adults. Private lessons and group classes, along with performance opportunities, are available several times a year.

 

We make it easy to get started with no: 

 

  • Upfront payments
  • Complicated contracts
  • Annual material fees; and
  • Semester minimums

 

Click here to register and get your first lesson free.

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