Many brain research studies—including those involved with early-childhood learning, improving mental health, and staving off dementia in later life—identify playing music as a means for keeping the old gray matter in shape. Music requires several specialized brain-related activities, the most basic of which is developing a motor skill. Beyond getting the right and left hands to play together and in rhythm, and using the ear to let you know whether or not you’re not making the right connections, music brings other, higher-level skills to bear. All of these contribute to what amounts to exercise for the brain.
One of the key factors for a healthy brain is the quality known as plasticity, or a brain that is, in its adjectival form, plastic. Keep in mind, this is “plastic” in the good sense, as in adaptive and malleable (as opposed to phony or tacky). Studies show that mixing up your routines helps keep your brain plastic. Brushing your teeth with your other hand, or unlocking a door with your eyes closed stimulates the brain, and like physical exercise for a muscle, keeps it from atrophying or otherwise going flabby. Music is an excellent agent for brain plasticity because it forces you to complete a set of requirements that produce certain results—results which are easily measured. Now, the same can be said of an arcade-style video game, and these are used as well to test psycho-motor functions as well. The difference is that with music, at the end of the exercise you’ve actually created something of worth. A high score in a video game may signify some relative ranking in motor skill abilities, but its redeeming social value ends there.
Speaking of social, music is an excellent platform for socialization. In even the most basic ensemble, you must all stay together, observing a collective tempo. You must play at the right level by striking a balance between being loud enough to be heard and lending support without be overbearing. At the same time, you must know enough about balance that when your part is the featured one, you’re able to assume leadership and pull focus. These are very high-level abstract concepts, which you may not appreciate when playing rhythm guitar for your band’s version of “Won’t Back Down,” but it’s operative nonetheless. The good thing about music is that, unlike, say, group conversation, you have a defined part to play. It’s a prelude for more abstract behaviors of socialization, the mastery of which is basic to human survival. Statistics demonstrate that social people live longer, meaning that biology is also on the side of sensitive rhythm guitarists.
It’s well known that if you’re in a rut, or suffering from some infirmity, music can therapeutic. You may think it lofty to claim that “music is to the soul what exercise is to the body,” but some scientists go further and assert that music is really more like brain calisthenics—that it doesn’t just improve your mood (which indirectly helps other aspects of your health), but it really does stimulate the brain and keep the blood vessels and neural pathways open and healthy.
Perhaps the ultimate affirmation of music as a healthy lifestyle choice is that indisputable metric, longevity. Research shows that, as a profession, conductors have the best record of longevity. Health experts first became aware of this in the mid-20th century, when the most famous conductors were living well into their 80s and 90s, during a time when the average life expectancy was about 50. Consider Leopold Stokowski, 95; Pablo Casals, 96; Nadia Boulanger, 90; and Arturo Toscanini, 89. An average age of 92.5. You could say that waving your arms around as your day job was good aerobic activity, and you’d be right. It probably kept their blood pressure down and stimulated blood flow to the brain. But these musicians didn’t just live long; they were sharp as tacks until the end because they were also applying great mental acuity to producing the best music possible. Even with world-class musicians at your disposal, this requires some serious brain chops.
Doing something with your life that requires intense study and discipline will reward you with mastery of a craft. Now we realize it’s actually healthy too. But perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising. When music is done well, it delights an audience and produces a thing of beauty, and you can intuitively sense that it’s one with nature and that all is right with the world. And when something you do is one with nature, it’s probably good for you in the process. —Jon Chappell