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Play An Instrument and Exercise Your Brain!

By Ayun Halliday

Get me a piano teacher, stat!

When I was a child, my father, enchanted by the notion that I might someday provide live piano accompaniment to his evening cocktails, signed me up for lessons with a mild-mannered widow who—if memory serves—charged 50¢ an hour.

Had I only been forced to practice more regularly, I’d have no trouble remembering the exact price of these lessons. My memory would be a supremely robust thing of beauty. Ditto my math skills, my cognitive function, my ability to multitask.

Instead, my dad eventually conceded that I was not cut out to be a musician (or a ballerina, or a tennis whiz…) and Mrs. Arnold was out a pupil.

Would that I stuck with it beyond my halting versions of “The Entertainer” and “Für Elise.” According to the TED-Ed video above, playing an instrument is one of the very best things you can do for your brain. Talent doesn’t matter in this context, just ongoing practice.

Neuroscientists using fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and PET (Positron Emission Tomography) technology to monitor the brain activity of subjects listening to music saw engagement in many areas, but when the subjects traded in headphones for actual instruments, this activity morphed into a grand fireworks display.

(The animated explanation of the interplay between various musically engaged areas of the brain suggests the New York City subway map, a metaphor I find more apt.)

This massive full brain workout is available to anyone willing to put in the time with an instrument. Reading the score, figuring out timing and fingering, and pouring one’s soul into creative interpretation results in an interoffice cerebral communication that strengthens the corpus calossum and executive function.

Vindication for drummers at last!

Though to bring up the specter of another stereotype, stay away from the hard stuff, guys…don’t fry those beautiful minds.

If you’d like to know more about the scientific implications of music lessons, WBUR’s series “Brain Matters” has a good overview here. And good luck breaking the good news to your children.

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