Learning how to play an instrument seems like an oddly daunting task for an adult. If you missed out on weekly piano lessons as a kid, is it too late to pick it up when you’re on the other side of 30?
The short answer is: no. Turns out, adults have some key advantages over children when it comes to learning how to play an instrument. For a more in-depth look, we turned to Dr. Jessica Grahn, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor at the Brain and Mind Institute and Psychology Department at Western University in Canada who researches music, and James Lenger, the founder and president of Guitar Cities and music instructor to both children and adults for over 21 years.
You already have a good understanding of music from a lifetime of listening to it.
Before you even start playing, you come in with an extra edge: You’ve spent your entire life listening to music. “When I’m teaching, with the adults, one of the first things I have them do is write out in the back of their lesson book every song that they’ve ever wanted to learn,” Lenger says. “Because of that exposure, when they’re learning something, they can relate it to music that they already know.” This knowledge can help you understand what chords and groupings of chords sound relatively easily.
“[Adults] can understand the basic structures of music and how they’re inherent in a number of different songs they listen to,” he says. “With kids, it’s really tough to take an abstract approach like that.”
You have the discipline and focus to make yourself practice.
As a child, your brain is still in the process of adapting to the environment and it can change connections more easily, thereby making music-learning an actual part of your brain wiring. As an adult, you can change connections, just not to the same degree. But this isn’t entirely unfortunate. The adult brain is also chock full of life experience, which can actually be beneficial when leaning to play an instrument.
“The disadvantage that children have is that they are not so good at figuring out higher level rules and they don’t really know about how to get good at something,” says Dr. Grahn. “Whereas adults usually have some practice, either with sports or school, at saying, ‘Okay, I want to succeed at this so what must I do? I must practice.'”
You are much better equipped to tackle complicated, abstract concepts.
Adults can also grapple abstract concepts more easily. “You can explain to an adult, ‘Well, here are the rules of a scale and this is why these notes follow each other and these notes don’t follow each other,'” says Dr. Grahn. “That might be much easier to remember because that’s a rule. They can then apply that rule in lots of different places in music, whereas children kind of have to learn it all by practice.”
The biggest difference in approach to learning harkens back to adults’ analytical nature. Lenger explains that children tend to play what’s put in front of them as fast as they can, while adults are sticklers for perfection. If you can put aside your desire for a mistake-free session and play even if your fingers aren’t exactly in the right position, you’re likely to learn more quickly.
You actually want to learn the instrument — no one is making you.
While some kids feel compelled to play an instrument — either by their parents or their lofty goals, like college admittance — adults are the masters of their own destinies. They’re generally excited to play music for the sole purpose of playing music. This motivation is “probably the most important thing,” says Dr. Grahn, and it actually has some great cognitive effects, increasing your ability to learn faster.
For best results, make sure you’re truly picking up an instrument that interests you and not one that you feel compelled to play.
Playing an instrument relieves stress (something you need more now than you did as a kid).
Sure, there have been studies singing the praises, so to speak, of music’s ability to reduce stress. Now that you’re not a carefree kid anymore, this can be particularly beneficial and serve as yet another powerful motivator. Music has been proven to release dopamine in reward areas of the brain, the same ones that light up in response to food, sex and drugs. In fact, Dr. Grahn says, “It’s probably harder to find areas of the brain that don’t respond to music than to find areas that do.”
Many professionals these days are taking breaks from long days at work to fit in music lessons, adds Lenger, whose clientele is about 90 percent adults coming in at all hours of the day. “It’s just an escape from the office for a little bit,” he says. “A big part of teaching isn’t just learning the guitar. Sometimes their first five minutes is coming in here and decompressing a little bit, and then we can go in and play the instrument for a while.”
There are some mood benefits of music that can actually help you learn how to play an instrument, too, which come in handy as an adult. (Studies prove this!) “Having a positive mood is generally very good for your cognitive function, for your general well-being and for being able to sleep, which we know enhances brain function,” says Dr. Grahn.
Plus, your brain could use the exercise.
As an adult, learning how to play an instrument is what Dr. Grahn calls a “brain trainer,” a way to challenge your brain in an effort to stay sharper and alert for longer. Not only is it possible for this stronger cognitive function to stave off dementia, but it will also allow you to enjoy a higher quality of life with a more active brain. “That you can get from music, but music isn’t necessarily special in that way, except for the fact that music also tends to have mood benefits,” she says.
How’s that for motivation?!