Do Instruments Make You Smarter?

Claire Wu

Several students have chosen to participate in band and orchestra this year. Joining band or orchestra, however, is not a light decision. Being an instrumentalist means you need to practice your instrument every day, with serious dedication.

There are many benefits to being in the band or orchestra as well. People in band perform in pep rallies and football games, providing the rest of the school with nice music. But can playing an instrument actually make you smarter?

We have an article up about how playing music without lyrics when you’re studying can improve your study sessions, helping you memorize material better by creating a positive mood and aiding endurance during longer study sessions. This is because music activates both hemispheres of the brain at the same time.

In contrast, playing an instrument activates virtually all parts of your brain, including fine motor skills and process vision, which simply listening to music cannot. It has also been proven that music training helps children improve their abstract reasoning, a crucial skill in math and science. Because of this, children who play an instrument are generally more academically successful than children who do not.

A study by The National Center for Biotechnology Information took three groups of German students: Those who played an instrument, those who had a family member that played an instrument, and those who did not play or have any family members who played a musical instrument. Through this study, they found that the students who played an instrument had the highest non-verbal IQ (on average) as well as, quite randomly, better spelling. 

“Life without playing music is inconceivable to me… I see my life in terms of music…I get most joy in life out of music.” – Albert Einstein

Music can ease nerves in an examination or assessment environment through boosts in confidence while performing in a non-academic context. It can also provide a nice ego-boost and sense of accomplishment when playing a hard piece perfectly after lots of practice.

Playing instruments can also help one’s physical health. By improving muscle memory, lowering blood pressure, and decreasing risk of heart disease, playing an instrument has been proven under multiple circumstances to improve your health. Playing music also produces antibodies, specifically immunoglobulin-A, which is a killer cell and can actually strengthen your immune system. Crazy, right? But while playing an instrument can improve the physical body, the mental effects of music are far greater.

Music, especially slow, quiet music can lower stress hormones and make you relaxed or amplify the current emotion you are feeling. There is nothing quite like the unique effect music has on your brain. A study by the Journal of Neuroscience has even found that music enlarges your brain. Yes, the amount of gray matter is more in professional musicians than in the rest of the population. Gray matter is important in your brain because it improves your information processing skills. The more advanced you are at your instrument, the more gray matter you have.

Being a musician can have special effects on different ages. Music benefits babies’ brains, and a study by McMaster University showed that one-year-olds who participated in interactive music classes with their parents “smiled more often, could communicate better, were less distressed, responded more favorably to music that was tonal and consonant (as opposed to atonal and dissonant music) and had more advanced brain responses to tones of music”. On the contrary, music can also help age-related hearing loss in older people. This is surprising because some musicians have serious hearing problems due to the loud music they played/ listened to, but if you protect your ears from that kind of noise, music can actually preserve your hearing. A study by the doctoral student Benjamin Zendel and Dr. Claude Alain showed that older musicians had the same results as younger subjects and better than similar-aged non-musicians when given the instructions to listen attentively to complex sounds.

Additionally, playing an instrument increases time-management skills and personal discipline, forcing the musician to make time for practice every day. Exposure to music can also increase emotional perception, training the musician to be fluent in the language of emotion through dynamics and tonal variance. This training can be translated to be used to interpret human emotion in people’s voices. Finally, music can speed up reaction times. Musicians with more than 7 years of experience showed slightly faster reaction times than non-musicians.

Through this article, you have seen a lot of the benefits of playing a musical instrument, as well as the answer to the million-dollar question. Yes, music does make you smarter. Academically, emotionally, physically, and so much more. So why not try picking up an instrument? It might just be your new best friend. 

For more information, check out these articles from The Sono School of Music, Psychology Today, and Piano Power.