Music and the Brain

I got a very interesting book as a Christmas present – Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. It’s an examination of how music can affect our brains through the stories and experiences of different people. The book doesn’t just concern itself with musicians, as music can have an affect on anyone even people who might consider themselves as non-musical. I am only about a quarter of the way through the book but was just reading about how music can physically alter our brains. The process of playing a musical instrument – all that practice, repetition, moving fingers, hand-eye coordination, reading notation – can enlarge certain areas of the brain. This part caught my attention “Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer, or a mathematician – but they could recognize the brain of a professional musician without a moment’s hesitation.”

I can remember a point when the catchphrase of the day was that ‘music makes you smarter’ and he references in the book the Mozart effect, whereby it was popularly believed that listening to classical music would increase intelligence. (Apparently the original research was that listening to Mozart would temporarily affect abstract spatial reasoning). So, while listening might not make me smarter, exposure to music and in particular learning a musical instrument stimulates so many areas of the brain that “music can be every bit as important educationally as reading or writing.”

I know from teaching a lot of children and especially teenagers when approaching exams, it is very difficult for them to take the time to practice as it is seen as time not spent studying their other subjects. Everyone needs a break when doing intense study and I have always encouraged such students to try to use their instrument practice as a break in their studies. Hopefully parents will see that playing/practicing a musical instrument while not conforming to the usual idea of studying can in fact help to stimulate the very areas of the brain that are needed for more conventional study and there is no reason why the two could not work hand in hand.

Keep practicing!!



For anyone wishing to further investigate the matter try:

Gaser and Schlaug 2003

Hutchinson, Lee, Gaab and Schlaur 2003

Nina Kraus, Mussacchia et al.

Am I too old to learn guitar?

For adults I would say that it’s never too late to learn and to benefit from the many advantages of playing a musical instrument. An instrument like the guitar involves so many different aspects that it can be beneficial on so many levels, (improve coordination & discipline, reduce stress, creative expression) even more so if you are older. The myth is that it’s much easier to learn guitar when you are young. This is really too much of a generalisation, learning guitar is not easy regardless of age and an adult who is motivated to learn can learn as quickly as a child. The biggest hurdle for adults is time or more to the point – time to practice. It is impossible to improve at playing guitar without practice so it becomes essential to try to fit it in around your normal schedule. There have been various studies that suggest to master something (in our case playing an instrument) would take approx. 10,000 hours of practice which translates to about 3 hours of practice everyday for 10 years. Obviously if you start at an early age then this is achievable before you reach your twenties but also it’s worth remembering that these figures are if you want to be a master of the instrument, if you’re just looking to be able to play a few songs most students would reach that stage within a year. If you would like some further reading the book ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell explores this 10,000 hour principle examining high achievers in different fields.

How long should I practice?

How long should I practice? You should read the previous blog about practice too. The amount of time you have available will depend on your circumstance (working hours, homework etc.) so you need to decide on a goal for your practice each week and work towards that. (This week I’ll learn how to play an F chord properly or I’ll learn a new scale)

If you have just started learning and have never played an instrument before then about 20mins a day should be fine (if you’re an adult). If you have a  young child starting to learn then 5-10mins daily should be ok to start with, the important thing being to encourage them to practice and develop a routine.

If you are at an intermediate stage and want to make some real progress well then at least an hour a day should do it.

If you’re studying classical guitar for example and your preparing for a grade 8 exam I’d say 2 hours a day minimum.

After some time practicing you will get a feel for how long you need to get all your work done and as you start progressing you will feel the need to practice more.

What’s the best way to practice?

What’s the best way to practice? We’ve all heard ‘Practice makes perfect’. Well I’m going to amend that to careful practice makes perfect. You can change the adjective to diligent or focused or whatever you like but the point is that just playing an instrument for an hour a day might not give you the dividends you expected in your progress. Why? Well because you need to be working on the elements of your playing that need work and doing this in a focused fashion. Even though this might sound obvious a lot of students will admit to just playing what they can already play well and while this might be fun it will not help much in moving along your progress.

The important thing is to have some sort of structure to your practice.

Realistically work out how much time you will have available, let’s say 30mins, 4 days a week.*

Now we need to divide that 30mins so you get the most from it. At the start of your session you should be more focused so work on whatever this weeks goal is…so 10mins on that. Then if you have a new song/piece give that the next 10mins and the final 10mins can be spent playing something you already know how to play. If you’re at the stage where you are learning scales then ‘warm up’ with scales before you start into your practice.

This is not a strict timetable and should be flexible so if today you feel your weekly goal has been achieved you could spend extra time learning a new song – maybe something that includes your weekly goal.

For example your weekly goal might be to improve a technique like ‘hammer-ons’ or improve bending strings or learn a new scale etc. There’s a lot of possibilities…

*I’ve purposely set the practice time low as a lot of students will say they don’t have enough time but 30mins a day should be possible for everyone.  There are 168 hours in a week!! Maybe this TED talk might help to give some inspiration.