There are lots of musicians in the world. According to the Liverpool Academy of Music, around 10% of the world’s population has picked up a guitar and attempted to play it at one time or another. The Mozart Project, meanwhile, estimates that as many as 1/4th of adults who identify as musicians can play the piano, and that number is growing throughout the years. In the UK, as many as one million people attempted to learn how to play an instrument during the Covid-19 pandemic, causing retailers to see their instrument sales boosted by as much as 80 per cent.
That last number is fascinating, considering how notoriously difficult it is to learn an instrument. While attempts at becoming proficient in instruments like guitar and piano are widespread, actual success in learning music is relatively low, especially among older demographics. So why was learning how to play an instrument more popular than learning how to sew, bake bread, or any other skilled hobby that became popular in lockdown?
According to author Daniel J. Levitin in his book This Is Your Brain on Music, learning to play an instrument connects like primitive sides of the mind with the more developed side. “At a neural level, playing an instrument requires the orchestration of regions in our primitive, reptilian brain – the cerebellum and the brain stem – as well as higher cognitive systems such as the motor cortex (in the parietal lobes) and the planning regions of our frontal lobes,” Levitin writes. In other words, playing music is a full-brain workout.
It’s this challenging aspect that actually causes people to gravitate towards learning an instrument. Elements of music, including rhythm, melody, tempo, meter, and repetition, are a part of everyday life, whether it’s walking down the street or remembering the specific timbre of a person’s voice. Because these elements float around freely in the interactions that people have every day, the brain naturally wants to make sense of them. Music has a universal appeal, and the brain is naturally curious as to why that happens, and how we might be able to make some of that ourselves.
Although it can initially appear to be difficult, learning an instrument actually has a significant influence on decreasing stress and anxiety. According to the Sloan School of Music, just listening to music helps facilitate the release of dopamine in the brain, while physically playing an instrument increases those levels thanks to the immersive nature of the exercise. The benefits of music therapy have spawned their own specialised area of psychological study, and the link between music and mental health disorders is becoming more concrete in the modern day.
In his book How Music Works, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne cites a 1994 study by Felix Post in The British Journal of Psychiatry that claims 69 per cent of the creative individuals he studied had mental disorders. “That’s a lot of nutters!” Bryne comically observed, but Byrne counted himself among them, having diagnosed himself with a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome. “Leaping up in public to do something wildly expressive and then quickly retreating back into my shell seemed, well, sort of normal to me.”
Of course, the first step towards making that leap onto a stage in front of a crowd involves learning how to play in the first place. The benefits of musical training don’t just stimulate the brain, but they also encourage improvement in other activities as well. “Musical training appears to have the effect of shifting some music processing from the right (imagistic) hemisphere to the left (logical) hemisphere, as musicians learn to talk about – and perhaps think about music using linguistic terms,” Levitin explains while discussing the benefits of learning music as a part of youth education.
There’s also no substitute for dedication. While the benefits of learning an instrument are clear, the ability to stick with it through the trials and frustrations often proves to be too much for someone with a casual interest. In his studies, Levitin also cites the perception of “experts” as potentially being discouraging for new musicians – if you think you’ll never be as skilled a drummer as John Bonham or as talented a pianist as Alice Coltrane, then why try?
Levitin counters with the argument that simply attempting to learn an instrument has almost the exact same benefits as actually succeeding in learning an instrument. It’s up to the person trying to learn to set appropriate goals and expectations, but once those goals are met or even attempted, it unlocks the same benefits that get showered onto a professional musician when they nail a particularly tricky section of a composition. Being the best at a certain instrument is not universal, but the mental health benefits from playing an instrument are.