Playing Music is Good for Your Brain

One of the perks of being at a university is access to journals. Today I read an article in the journal Neurophyschology titled “The Relation Between Instrumental Musical Activity and Cognitive Aging.” The authors are Brenda Hanna-Pladdy and Alicia MacKay. In the article Hanna-Pladdy and MacKay link playing an instrument with superior cognitive function in the twilight years of life.

When I play the guitar I’ve often wondered what my brain activity looks like. There are so many things to regulate and process. The movement of the left hand fingers on the strings. The rhythm and precision of the right hand, using a pick or fingers. The awareness of where the song is going and what note or chord is needed. As well as the constant decisions of technique, chord voicings, and rhythm accents. It’s almost overwhelming. It is easy to see how this is an intense cognitive workout.

Playing music is a combination of letting go of consciousness and keeping it firmly in place. Some people feel music, they just respond to it and play it. On some level I feel music. A song will resonate with me, and I can devise appropriate ways to add parts to it or carry it on. But I don’t have a natural ear for music or a natural talent to play the guitar. Usually I cannot hear a song and just begin playing it without music. I can figure it out, but it will take me a bit of time. I’ve worked on developing my ability to play by ear, but it has been slow going. Many things I play are based upon memorization rather than hearing.

One thing that I do to practice playing by ear is to improvise songs. I sing a melody, composed of lyrics pertaining to whatever is on my mind, and play chords to back it. It is easy for me to when the chords dictate the melody, it is more challenging for me when the melody is given rule over the chords.

Now I can see this as a two part exercise. I’m building my musical ability and I’m preparing to be a ringer at Memory at the retirement home.


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