"Musical activity throughout life may serve as a challenging cognitive exercise, making your brain fitter and more capable of accommodating the challenges of aging," said lead researcher Brenda Hanna-Pladdy. "Since studying an instrument requires years of practice and learning, it may create alternate connections in the brain that could compensate for cognitive declines as we get older."With some of these studies I have a concern that they are merely showing correlation, not causation, but that is a common problem with all research into health. It might be the case that people who are musicians retain more cognitive ability as they age because they have a certain kind of mind that also led them to play music. Understanding causation can be tricky.
But it is absolutely the case that it is very unlikely that playing music will leave you worse off. For one thing, exercising your mind with musical challenges keeps you from doing something else that might be harmful. Like watching television! I am pretty sure that music does have positive benefits.
When I was in first year university, at which time I had been a musician for four or five years, I was in a beginning German class. Each week we spent an hour in the language lab, listening to tapes of people speaking German and trying to duplicate the sounds of the language. Our very first visit there the teacher was listening in to each of us one after another. When she got to me, she listened for a couple of phrases ("guten Morgen, wie geht es ihnen?") and immediately said, "oh, you're the music student." Each year she had a couple of music students in the class and could tell who they were because they could pick up the accent quite quickly. It is all about knowing how to listen. So that's one example from my experience.
Another one came about because after a considerable career as a performer I decided to return to university and do a doctorate in musicology. What came out of that was a renewed intellectual capacity to work with and understand music. A career in performance means that you spend a great deal of time every day just maintaining your technique. You have to do scales, slurs and arpeggios every day as well as work on the particular technical problems of individual pieces. You spend more time maintaining old repertoire and memorizing new repertoire. All this can amount to four or five hours every day. It is hard work and a lot of it is intellectually dull. What I discovered when I started the doctorate program was that my intellectual capacities had stagnated somewhat. But after taking several demanding seminars, a whole other side of my mind became newly engaged.
One of the things about music that might make it so healthy is that it is a complex activity, comprising physical, emotional, intellectual and aesthetic aspects. You have to look after your instrument which might include things like replacing strings, making reeds, re-hairing bows and a host of other details. If you are a guitarist you also have to look after your fingernails which are the rough equivalent of the reeds of a clarinet. You have to learn many kinds of listening skills. You have to sensitize yourself to many shades of expression and mood. You have to develop memory skills. There are also a lot of analytical skills that you may need to develop. You may get interested in the history of music which would lead to studying that history which brings into play a whole other range of mental skills. As I have often said, music is a whole universe.
Here is a student from the Brescia Guitar Summer School in Italy doing a pretty fair performance of one of the more challenging pieces that every guitar student runs into, Manuel Ponce's Thème varié et Finale: