Why do musicians do what they do?
Ask any musician, from the striving busker to the thriving megastar, if they’re glad they took the time to learn an instrument and you can guarantee the answer would be positive. Put simply, there are no downsides to it. You develop a new skill, open up the opportunity to write and perform, and generally enrich your life in a way unlike other hobbies.
But there is so much more to learning an instrument than the visible payoffs. You see, there is a world of magic going on inside your brain throughout your musical career. From the first time you pick up an instrument through to the day you finally crack that legendary solo, you are benefiting in so many ways that you perhaps don’t realise. Let’s take a closer look at some of the key benefits of playing an instrument.
Particularly for anyone starting to learn an instrument, the hardest part is proving your dedication to it. Days, weeks and months can go by with seemingly little or no improvement. Whether that’s those first painful barre chords on an acoustic guitar or trying to (literally) get your mouth around the correct breathing techniques required on a trombone, it can seem like you’re putting all the effort in with little or no reward. In reality, it is this part of the learning curve which claims the most victims.
Plenty of people fancy learning an instrument and, wrongly, assume it is as easy as buying one and having a few lessons. Anyone who isn’t dedicated loses interest at this stage when they don’t see instant results. But, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. The fact that you’re willing to dedicate an hour a night to learning something means you are showing patience and perseverance which you maybe didn’t know you had. Give it a year and you’ll have grown in ability, and confidence, and you’ll look back and be glad of those hard first few months. Indeed, those first few months will forever be a badge of honour, saying you stuck it out and earned your stripes. There are no shortcuts to learning an instrument.
Typically, every musician will have a song they’d love to be able to play but can’t, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s too technical or too quick. By keeping that song in mind as you develop, and putting the practice in, anybody can play anything. Truly. It’s not a closed shop, learning an instrument. And just imagine how good you’ll feel once you actually can play it. Yes, learning an instrument is hard but it’s a perfect virtuous circle too; by putting the hours in and dedicating yourself to improving your skills, you’ll nurture a sense of achievement which is pretty hard to beat.
One of the many reasons why so many parents encourage their kids to learn an instrument is because of the positive effect it can have on concentration. You may have a current concentration span equivalent to a goldfish, but learning an instrument gives that payoff where you can see gradual improvement.
This is particularly true for players of instruments which involve reading from sheet music; one lapse and you’re out of the game. As your technical skills improve, naturally so will your levels of concentration which has benefits in other areas of your life too.
Everybody likes to feel like they’re good at something, right? Knowing you have a talent, whether natural or earned, goes a long way to building confidence in your ability to take on new challenges. Even better than that is the way that certain skills you learn, either physically through motor skills or mentally through thought, can be transferred to other areas. Standing up on a stage to play an instrument takes skill, courage and calmness – all attributes which can come in handy when giving presentations at work, for example.
While the actual process of learning an instrument can, at times, be fairly solitary, the benefit comes in the way musicians can connect socially to form groups or bands. By learning an instrument you open up the potential to meet other musicians and have something in common with them. This could lead all kinds of places, from a jam session in someone’s garage through to the main stage at Glastonbury. Music gives people from all cultures or backgrounds a common, universal language with which to communicate.
As well as being mentally and creatively stimulating, playing an instrument can also be a great physical experience. Just look at any drummer as they come off stage, or watch the speed at which a good guitarist moves around the fretboard. A lot of this physical exertion is what makes the player’s technique, a combination of precision and deftness. Over time, you’re building up muscle memory in your playing, which keeps your body agile and develops strength in places you never knew you had it.
Perhaps above all of the points listed earlier, comes pleasure. The pleasure in playing is perhaps the first thing people say is their reason for picking an instrument. Yes it builds your transferrable skills. Yes it builds confidence. But the single most important benefit of playing an instrument is that it makes you happy. It can pick you up when you’re down, calm you when you’re angry. You put the time into learning something and that something just happens to sound amazing.
Writing songs, learning new riffs, talking to other musicians, reading up on the gear used by your heroes; all these things contribute to what we think is the most rewarding activity on the face of the planet.
Still not convinced? Below are a few articles that outline scientific research into the benefits of playing an instrument.