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The #1 Reason to Pick Up an Instrument After 50

Research backs the brain benefits of learning to read and play music later in life


spinner image an older persons right hand playing on the keys of a piano
Jared Soares

It was a 1931 Steinway piano that sparked Jeffrey Galvin’s interest in learning how to play.

The antique instrument belonged to his mother, an accomplished pianist who, he remembers, always played Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on its black and white keys — even into her 90s. 

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When she died, Galvin moved the piano from her home in Chicago to his in Silver Spring, Maryland. But instead of letting it collect dust, he had it restored. And at the age of 71, he decided to learn how to play.

Galvin, now 74, spends his evenings studying Chopin and the other greats — a welcome change from the long and sometimes stressful days at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, where he works as a radiologist.

“I’m very happy to sit literally for hours and play,” says Galvin, who takes weekly lessons at nearby Levine Music.

Along with happiness, he’s reaping other benefits from all that studying and practicing — brain benefits. A growing body of research, including a report published by AARP, shows that learning an instrument later in life is associated with improved attention, thinking skills and mental health.

One study, published in 2023 in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, found that learning a musical instrument can improve verbal memory, or the ability to retain and recall written and spoken information, in as little as 10 weeks.

Piano training has also been found to improve working memory, processing speed and verbal fluency in adults ages 60 to 80, according to results of a randomized controlled trial published in 2022 in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. What’s more, a review of studies published that same year in BMC Neurology found that adults who played a musical instrument were significantly less likely to develop dementia.

“I didn’t do it for that reason,” Galvin says, referring to the recognized brain gains. “But it’s fine with me — I’ll take all the help I can get.”  

spinner image jeffrey galvin smiling while playing the piano
Jeffrey Galvin gets a piano lesson from Jason Solounias at Levine Music in Silver Spring, Maryland Thursday October 26, 2023.
Jared Soares

A workout for the brain

The above-the-neck perks of studying the piano — or any instrument, for that matter — come as no surprise to Jonathan Burdette, M.D., a professor of neuroradiology at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, who studies the impacts of music on the brain. He says that when you play music, “it’s a whole brain workout.” And that’s exactly what you want for better brain health.

Like the muscles in your body, your brain will lose strength if you don’t use it, Burdette says. “And I know nothing that uses your brain more than playing music.”

Because playing an instrument requires reading, listening, movement, memory, even emotion, all of the areas of the brain responsible for those processes spring into action — from the frontal lobe to the cerebellum and several regions in between.

“Your brain is on fire,” Burdette says. “[Playing music] basically lights it up.” 

spinner image jonathan burdette playing the fiddle sitting next to another man with a mandolin
Jonathan H. Burdette (L), a radiologist who studies music and the brain, recently started playing the fiddle. “Bluegrass styles are interesting and complex,” says Burdette, 56.
Courtesy Jonathan Burdette

All the while, a few other things are happening in the brain, says Larry Sherman, professor of neuroscience at the Oregon Health & Science University and author of the book Every Brain Needs Music: The Neuroscience of Making and Listening to Music. For starters, he says, when we play an instrument, we may be growing new neurons, or nerve cells in the brain.

Most of the brain’s neurons are created by the time we’re born, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “But when you do something like learning an instrument, which is such a cognitive challenge, there’s [research] to suggest that kind of activity can really drive the generation of new cells,” Sherman says.

“Your brain is on fire,” Burdette says. “[Playing music] basically lights it up.”

— Jonathan Burdette, M.D., a professor of neuroradiology at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine

Neurons need to be able to process information at high speeds when you make music — think of how quickly a musician has to translate a note on a page to the pluck of a string. When you practice music, the brain produces myelin, an insulating material that wraps itself around the neurons and facilitates the fast flow of information.

“If you have myelin, I always like to say it’s like your nerve impulses are driving on the autobahn in Germany at midnight, where there’s no speed limit — so you can go 200 miles an hour and no one’s going to stop you,” Sherman says.

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Finally, when we learn new and challenging things, like how to play the piano, Sherman says, we generate new synapses, which help to pass information from neuron to neuron. “And when we rehearse music that we’ve learned before, we strengthen those synapses,” he adds.  

Research suggests the making of myelin and strengthening of synapses declines with age, so doing an activity that can rev up both actions means “you’ll have a better chance of [preserving] those processes and a better, more functional brain,” Sherman says. 

Music can even affect the structure of the brain. “There’s an important part of the brain called the corpus callosum, which is the connection between your left and right brain, and musicians tend to have a bigger one,” says Bernard R. Bendok, M.D., chair of the Department of Neurologic Surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix. Musicians also tend to have more gray matter, he says, which is the area of the brain with a high concentration of neurons.

spinner image overhead shot of the top of jeffrey galvins head while he is sitting at the piano and his teachers hand is pointing out a section showing on the music stand above the keyboard
Jared Soares

It’s not too late to start

Learning to play a musical instrument is often thought of as a young person’s sport, but really, the brain can learn new things at any age — an ability that scientists refer to as neuroplasticity.

The biggest difference between learning as a youngster and picking up an instrument later in life is that it can take more time when you’re older, mostly because a young brain is more malleable. (This is also why young kids can learn another language so quickly.) 

“It’s not that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, it just takes longer,” Sherman says.

But don’t let that deter you, says Bendok, whose research involves mapping the brains of musicians. “I think we overemphasize that. And just like it’s never too late to start going to the gym — as long as it’s okay with your cardiologist — it’s never too late to grow new mental skills and to learn new skills,” he says. 

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Wake Forest’s Burdette is putting this to the test. At 56, he’s learning to play the fiddle. “It’s certainly hard work,” Burdette says, despite having taken piano and viola lessons as a child. “Bluegrass styles are interesting and complex,” he says. Plus, he’s training by ear, which “is a different way of thinking,” he adds.  

Still, he wants to keep at it until he reaches his goal, which is to be able to join a jam session, possibly even with his three daughters who play in a bluegrass group.

Similarly, studying piano can demand immense focus, Galvin says. Sometimes he’ll spend an hour or two a night working through tricky runs or challenging chords in a new piece. But while that may have been a deal-breaker a decade ago, he says he enjoys devoting his time and attention to it now. “What you didn’t have patience for at some other time in your life, you may now.”

spinner image jeffrey galvin plays piano in the foreground while his piano teacher jason solounis plays another piano in the background and looks over at jeffreys playing
Jared Soares

Ready to rock?

Sherman says the key to learning an instrument at any age is to have the motivation to want to do it, “and to have some grit, some perseverance.” That’s encouraging news for older adults, who, unlike young children, often start music lessons of their own accord — no parental force or bribes needed.

It’s also about finding the right fit, both in terms of the instrument and the instructor. If you have bad arthritis in your hands, for example, the piano or guitar might not be the best option. The bongos, however, could be for you. (A 2018 study found that adults who completed a 15-week drumming program saw gains in verbal and visual memory.)  

Similarly, if you live in a small space, a ukulele might win out over a double bass. Keep in mind, too, that vocal lessons can provide many of the same brain benefits as more traditional instruments, experts in the field say.

And as for the teacher, find someone “who’s willing to teach you the way you’re able to learn,” Sherman says. Ask friends for recommendations or check with a local music school about adult lessons. Some may even offer adult group lessons for those interested in adding more social time into their routine, which is another boon for the brain.

Just remember once you start to keep your expectations in check. You may have spent your career working as a top attorney or CEO only to find yourself playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” before progressing to Mozart. “People have to be a little humble and interested in learning,” says Jason Solounias, a piano instructor at Levine Music, which counts many older adults among its students.

A prescription for better brain health  

Music is being incorporated into health care now more than ever. It’s used to help stroke survivors regain lost speech and dementia patients connect with their past. Music has also been found to help people with Parkinson’s disease improve their ability to walk, and can even ease symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Bendok suspects music’s role in medicine will continue to grow. Already, he encourages all of his patients to take both music and dance lessons — a prescription of sorts for a better brain and body, with no harmful side effects. And more doctors could be doing this in the future.

“Exercise combined with music lessons combined with challenging ourselves is a great equation for longevity,” Bendok says. Plus, there’s the joy that music brings.

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