How Playing an Instrument Benefits Your Brain


The link between musical prowess and intellect has long been established, with numerous impartial studies having uncovered the fact that musicians tend to be smarter…

Question is, are they better at music because they’re more intelligent, or was it learning an instrument that got them that way?

It’s an intriguing question for psychologists, and even more contemporary studies hint at an answer that non-musicians can rejoice in.

But first, let’s take a look at what it means when we say musicians are “more intelligent.”

Musicians Proven to Have Higher IQs

Psychologists at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee discovered way back in 2008 that musicians are more prone to ‘divergent thinking’; that is, having an elevated ability to use both hemispheres of the brain to come up with creative solutions to problems.

While this tends to be the case with anyone who is artistically creative, it seems to occur more naturally in musicians given the skills necessary to translate written musical score into highly precise motor movements to recreate the music with their instruments.

Numerous studies since then has backed up these findings, and the following TED-Ed animation neatly sums up how it all works:

In short, there are a number of mental benefits to being a musician:

  • Better problem-solving skills
  • A greater ability to strategize
  • Enhanced memory
  • Heightened social awareness
  • Aptitude for both linguistic and numerical skills

Of course, this brings us on to the question as to whether learning an instrument makes you smarter, or whether it’s smarter people who are more likely to pick up an instrument.

Again, a little bit of good news because…

Learning an Instrument in Adulthood Improves IQ

And not just a little bit, either: alongside the above listed benefits that aren’t IQ-based, those who take on formal musical training can see an IQ increase of around 7 points according to psychological research headed by the University of Zurich.

According to Dr. Lutz Jancke who conducted the pioneering research in 2009:

“We found that even in people over the age of 65 after four or five months of playing a instrument for an hour a week there were strong changes in the brain. The parts of the brain that control hearing, memory, and the part that controls the hands among others, all become more active. Essentially, the architecture of the brain changes.”

Even better, the type of instrument learned doesn’t matter either; be it via piano lessons, violin lessons, drum lessons or any other type of instrument, as long as it’s undertaken with a degree of seriousness (and ideally in a formal setting) the brain training takes effect.

It should be noted however that the most dramatic recorded improvements to intelligence occur during early development, making music lessons for children even more imperative. But that’s not to downplay the fact that…

Positive Impact Seen Across the Age Groups

Learning a musical instrument doesn’t just have a positive affect on your brain, but it makes you more mentally adept for longer. To paraphrase a 2011 paper by the American Psychological Association:

“Engaging in musical activity for most of one’s lifetime significantly helps remember names, and enhances nonverbal memory, the ability to work based on what one sees, and mental agility during old age.”

Combined with a healthy lifestyle, brain training through music lessons – whether you’re starting out at age five or fifty – will stand you in good stead for later life.

Listening to Music is Smart. Learning to Play it is Smarter

If you love music, you’ve already got the mental capacity to expand in these areas. As covered in the above video, even the act of listening to (and appreciating) a piece of music can have the same cognitive affect and fire up your neurons in all the right ways.

Learning how to play an instrument– and any instrument is permissible – takes a little extra effort than simply listening to a concerto, but it’s no less enjoyable and rewarding. Plus, if you’ve already got a love of music, you’re in the right frame of mind to get started and reap the benefits.

Learning an Instrument: Brain Training That Actually Works

It’s also one of the few mental workouts that can provably help to improve your brain in numerous areas.

We’ve all come across ads for ‘brain training’ games and systems, but the efficacy of these has long been under dispute; there’s very little (if any)impartial evidence to suggest playing memory or cognition games on your phone has much of a long-lasting effect on mental abilities outside of the brain training games themselves.

On the other hand, getting formal tuition on your instrument of choice offers genuine brain training results that translate into other areas of your life…

… as well as a whole new skill to boot.

Sources and Further Reading:

Veronica Davis