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Inside a Musician’s Aging Brain

A singer-songwriter dives into brain research to see what's going on in his head

By Jim Walsh

Like most rock musicians of a certain age I know, I have to admit to a certain amount of self-doubt. As a 59-year-old writer, songwriter and performer, I try not to listen to the voices in my head that regularly question my ego, talent and chops. They're the ones asking me why I keep making music in the absence of any real audience or money, no matter how satisfying it may be to self-express and live out the words of Henry Miller: “To be joyous is to be a madman in a world of sad ghosts.”

Credit: TED-Ed | Sharon Colman Graham

Why, dude? Whyyyyyy?

The answer came from an unlikely source: my 86–year-old mother. There, on my Facebook wall (and those of my musician brothers), was posted a Brain Pickings headline that read “How Playing Music Benefits Your Brain More Than Any Other Activity.” The video, posted below, justified it all with hard science:

“Did you know that every time musicians pick up their instruments, there are fireworks going off all over their brain? On the outside, they may look calm and focused, reading the music and making the precise and practiced movements required, but inside their brains, there’s a party going on. How do we know this?

“Well, in the last few decades, neuroscientists have made enormous breakthroughs in understanding how our brains work by monitoring them in real time… When researchers got participants to listen to music, they saw fireworks. But when scientists turn from observing the brains of music listeners to those of musicians, the little backyard fireworks became a jubilee. It turns out that while listening to music engages the brain in some pretty interesting activities, playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full-body workout.”

Thanks, Ma!

Feeling Like a Kid

For years, the benefits of children playing music have been extolled, and the mere act of playing an instrument has been a proven way to thicken the cortex of the brain structures that fuel motor planning and coordination, visuospatial ability and emotion and impulse regulation. But that’s kid stuff.  (Then again, playing music still makes me feel like a kid.)

In the past few years, however, study after study and book after book has trumpeted the benefits of playing music for older adults. In his groundbreaking Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain,” the late neurologist Oliver Sacks reported that playing music has more positive impact on the brain than any other human activity, by engaging both halves of the brain equally. He contended that a focused regimen of musical practice rewires the brain and connects us to others and the universe like nothing else.

Maybe that’s why every lifelong singer, songwriter and musician I’ve known say all the rehearsals and the hauling of gear are worth it because playing just feels so good. Many liken music's power of catharsis and feelings of oneness to its only real comparison: great sex.

Research (and experience) tells us that the brain is the most important sex organ, but what of the anatomy of the musician’s brain?

“Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer or a mathematician,” Sacks wrote, “but they would recognize the brain of a professional musician without a moment’s hesitation.”

Daniel J. Levitin, the neuroscientist writer of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (who also plays sax, guitar and bass) also finds that the differences between musicians’ and non-musicians’ brains are significant. Musicians use different parts of their brains, more of their brains and more parts of their brains simultaneously to complete tasks. Which, I guess, is what my brothers and I are doing in the video below, even though I thought we were just jamming to Gloria.

Everyone Should Play Music

Playing feels good, it’s good for you and you can do it in public without risking a citation. So what’s stopping all of us from picking up an instrument and singing our collective guts out? Levitin, who runs the Laboratory for Music Cognition, Perception and Expertise at McGill University, says it’s a cultural problem — a notion that making music is out of reach for most people.

“When they find out what I do for a living, many people tell me they love music listening, but their music lessons ‘didn’t take.’ I think they’re being too hard on themselves,” Levitin writes. “The chasm between musical experts and everyday musicians that has grown so wide in our culture makes people feel discouraged, and for some reason this is uniquely so with music. Even though most of us can’t play basketball like Shaquille O’Neal, or cook like Julia Child, we can still enjoy playing a friendly backyard game of hoops, or cooking a holiday meal for our friends and family.”


And as far as the brain is concerned, Levitin says, it doesn’t matter if you have so-called “talent.”

“This performance chasm does seem to be cultural, specific to Western society. And although many people say that music lessons didn’t take, cognitive neuroscientists have found otherwise in their laboratories. Even just a small exposure to music lessons as a child creates neural circuits for music processing that are enhanced and more efficient than for those who lack training," writes Levitin. "Music lessons teach us to listen better, and they accelerate our ability to discern structure and form in music, making it easier for us to tell what music we like and what we don’t like.”

A 'Younger' Brain

Northwestern University neuroscientist Nina Kraus likes to quote Harry Potter Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore to make a point about the powerful effects playing an instrument has on the brain: "Ah, music. A magic far beyond all we do here!”

The brains of musicians are “biologically younger" than their counterparts, she says. In a series of slides called “Music Across the Lifespan” posted on the website of Auditory Neuroscience Lab she runs, Kraus lays out the following facts:

  • Musicians have stronger auditory cognitive skills across the life span.
  • Playing an instrument improves working memory, hearing speech in noise and neural speech-sound processing across the life span.
  • A lifetime of playing an instrument protects musicians from age-related neural declines.
  • Adults who played an instrument as a child still reap neural benefits even 40 years after stopping lessons.
  • Even older musicians with hearing loss have superior hearing in noise and auditory cognitive skills.

We hear with our brains, not our ears, she points out. Thus, Beethoven.

Inside My Head

I may not be Beethoven, and I’ve never had my musician’s brain tested, but I sense all of these benefits are true for me. I can feel it. My post-practice and post-gig brain feels sharper. My memory stronger. I feel more connected to myself and the world.

My 59-year-old brain may occasionally have more trouble recalling lyrics than my 19-year-old self — that kid in a punk-pop band in Minneapolis when me and the boys would practice four or five nights a week in order to write, rock and remember our songs and setlists. Nowadays, I practice my guitar and songs daily, and the joy of repetition and practice yields a clarity and endorphin rush that still feels like magic.

That is my brain on music. No wonder I keep going.


Jim Walsh is a Minneapolis writer and songwriter and author of The Replacements: All Over but the Shouting. Read More
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