Benefits of piano lessons for adults

“Music making makes the elderly healthier... There were significant decreases in anxiety, depression, and loneliness following keyboard lessons. These are factors that are critical in coping with stress, stimulating the immune system, and in improved health. Results also show significant increases in human growth hormones following the same group keyboard lessons. (Human growth hormone is implicated in aches and pains.)” —Dr. Frederick Tims, reported in AMC Music News, June 2, 1999

They say that it is much easier for a child to learn how to play piano than an adult. But it is my experience that an adult can learn how to play a piano faster, easier and often times better than a child. The truth is just the opposite of common wisdom. Think about it, we adults have reasoning skills and experience behind us. We have the ability to sit still for longer than a five minute stretch and actually focus. "They" have often said lots of things and been wrong. I think they are wrong about this one too. So, if you are thinking that you are too old to begin learning piano as an adult, think again.

I know a man who began playing piano in his seventies, when he finally had time to learn, and he gets a lot of joy out of it, as does the whole household, now some ten years later. Ten years of playing, probably lots more to come, that he would have missed out on if he thought he was too old to start something new. Adults can learn piano and we sure can do it well, too.

There are many benefits of learning a musical instrument as an adult.  This post isn’t trying to prove that it is better to learn music as an adult (vs. a child).  It simply states that learning as an adult definitely has benefits. 

(1) Adults Can Increase Their Brain Plasticity

Their what?  Increased brain plasticity means the nervous system has adapted to change… found new ways of learning… sometimes after an injury or a stroke… but more commonly after acquiring a new skill.  Studies have shown that younger brains may change more readily.  However, according to Science Magazine older brains have definitely not lost the capacity to change. 

Researchers have examined whether there are critical periods in the development of specific skills like music.  A study of violinists was conducted in 1995 by Thomas Elbert of the University of Konstanz in Germany and Edward Taub of the University of Alabama.  It included musicians who started before the age of 12, musicians who started as adults, and non-musicians.  The scientists found that the left hand (which requires more dexterity than the right when playing the violin) of all string musicians is represented by a larger area in the brain’s touch sensing region than the left hand of non-musicians.  The touch sensing region in the musicians who learned as children was larger than those who learned as adults, possibly indicating that the brain is more receptive to musical training earlier in life.  However, in all cases the brain had changed!  This shows an increase in circuitry and neurotransmitters regardless of when the skill was learned.  An awakening of the brain.  Thomas Elbert summarizes his study in his own words,

“Twenty years ago people thought that the structure of the brain develops during childhood and once that organisation in the brain has been developed that there is very little room for changes and for plastic alterations. Now we know that there is enormous capacity.” 

Essentially this proves that learning a musical instrument as an adult is not only possible, but it may also improve your cognitive abilities. 

Lift your right foot off the floor and make clockwise circles.  Now draw the number 6 in the air with your right hand.  For most people their foot changes direction (mine does!).  Keep working on it and you will increase your Brain Plasticity.

(2) Adults are Goal-Oriented

Adults are more focused and more goal-oriented than children.  Adults are self-driven (is that a word?).  Adults are learning because they want to – not because mom is making them.

(3) Adults Can Understand the “Why”

Children who start very young usually learn scales at an age at which they really don’t understand why they are being asked to do them.  I can honestly tell you that when I was 5 years old I had no idea why I had to play all those scales.  Adults can easily understand the theory behind music… and why practice makes perfect.

(4) Stress Relief!

I have been playing the piano since I was 2 (so I’ve been told).  I have been playing the violin for 2 months.  When I’m playing the piano, there is still room for thoughts to enter my head like “what should I make for dinner?”, “did I pay that bill?”, “why am I a loser?”.  When I am playing the violin, it is honestly so hard for me that nothing else can enter my mind.  I can completely forget about everything, and I feel totally refreshed and stress-free after about 30 minutes of “playing”.  

A groundbreaking study in the February 2005 Issue of the Medical Science Monitor showed that playing a musical instrument can reverse “multiple components of the human stress response on the genomic level”.  I have no idea what that means, but it sounds good.  The study stated that this is the same effect that meditation has.  And we all know that meditation relieves stress.

(5) Improved Quality of Life

Some of the greatest benefits of music include group classes and performances… especially for anyone living alone or retired.  A 1999 study, “Music Making and Wellness”, sponsored by the International Music Products Association (of course – ha!), found that seniors who participated in group keyboard lessons reported significantly decreased feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness.  They also showed an increase in human growth hormone (hGH), which has been linked to positive effects on aging such as increased energy levels, decreased wrinkling (okay, really?  I need to see more info on that.), lower chance of osteoporosis, increased muscle mass, and fewer aches and pains.

Additionally, preliminary results of an on-going George Washington University study of adults 65 and over indicated that those who took part in a senior chorale group fared better in a variety of social, behavioral, quality of life and mental health measures than did those in a control group who did not take part in musical instruction.  The chorale group in fact reported better overall health including fewer doctor visits, fewer falls, fewer hip fractures, lower levels of depression, less loneliness and better morale.  Wow!  As if that isn’t enough they also reported fewer vision problems than they had at the start of study, and increased their overall level of activity.

So, if you been thinking of taking up piano or any musical activity after all these years… it looks like it’s a great idea!