music, psychology

on music: don’t just listen

Today, the majority of the world listens to music, but the making of it has become something of an expert field over the past few centuries. We imply it in our culture constantly, from American Idol to the radio. The music we listen to must be worthy of our selective ears, and this makes the playing of it much more than the casual family event that it used to be. Music production has become an endeavor in itself, something you can make a career out of. There is nothing wrong with this; I’m not trying to bag on the music industry. I could probably write an entire post dedicated to issues with music and copyright today, and this is not it. I’m simply drawing attention to an issue I became aware of recently.

In This Is Your Brain on Music, musician and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin points out that “music listening, performance, and composition engage nearly every area of the brain that we have so far identified, and involve nearly every neural subsystem.” Music is, in short, a fulfilling experience, something that exercises both the brain and the body, and the sad fact is that only a small fraction of people the world over play a musical instrument. In the United States today, this is probably around 6%. Of course, the number of people within this fraction who actually create music is much smaller.

So why should you play an instrument? I’ll give you a list, just to make things easier on you. (Sources for this information are at the bottom of this post.)

  1. It allows you to understand songs you love much more deeply, to make them your own, and to create new ones–don’t forget about that part.

  2. It builds confidence. The ability to make harmonious sound come out of something as strangely shaped as a guitar or a French horn is rather remarkable if you think about it. It makes you feel very coordinated.

  3. It builds self-discipline. Playing a musical instrument requires concentration and tons of practice, so when people enjoy it, they tend to spend a lot of time on it.

  4. It helps fight memory loss. Ever notice that certain songs bring back good (or bad) memories? And that’s just the part we notice.

  5. It lowers blood pressure and generally relaxes you. Ask anyone who has ever fallen asleep while playing something.

  6. It fights depression and loneliness. In other words, it lights up your brain and keeps you occupied when you’d be bored otherwise.

  7. It increases intelligence and social skills, mainly in kids but also in adults.

  8. Have I mentioned it’s fun yet?

  9. It’s fun.

I could keep listing things, but I think I’ve hit the highlights. My point is that playing music is good for you. My mother got me a guitar when I was in elementary school, and I learned grudgingly at first, but now I can’t imagine life without it. (I didn’t even get official lessons; I taught myself, and badly at that.) If you don’t play a musical instrument and find this hard to believe, imagine taking away an entire genre of music that you listen to, having it simply not exist. That’s how I feel imagining life without playing the guitar.

One of the many stupid things about pop culture today is it discourages people from playing music. There are so many incredibly talented artists out there to listen to, competing to be the best, so why try when you’ll probably never be as good as them? If you are still asking yourself this question, please consider the list again; if that still hasn’t convinced you, I have one more reason for you…

10 Because you can. Human beings are unique in this regard, unless you’re including birds. Why not take advantage of something so wonderful? Really, why play music? How is that even a question? Why read? Why think? Why not?

Sources:

This Is Your Brain on Music

People playing a musical instrument in the U.S. 2002-2010

Music-Making in America

Music and Cognitive Abilities

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