Playing drums and other musical instruments benefits your brain.
HAS A stranger, I would probably look like an octopus having a feverish dream – my nervous appendages stomping on the hi-hat pedal and hitting the snare when they should be doing something else. For my long-suffering drum teacher, I am one of the countless amateurs he has guided through a legendary groove of pop music: the intro to “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon, performed by the inimitable drummer Steve Gadd.
For a neurologist who studies the effects of music on the brain, I would be quite another thing: a middle-aged man doing the equivalent of a full body workout for his gray matter.
This is not hyperbole. For much of the past two decades, doctors and scientists have collected a wealth of evidence that not only suggests but clearly shows how playing music improves your brain function. From UC San Francisco to Northwestern, from the University of Central Florida to Pitt and others, the results are as consistent as our brains are complex. The simple – or maybe not so simple – acts of playing scales on the guitar, blowing a trumpet, and typing paradiddles lead to tangible rewards. Playing music can improve memory and cognition, help you hear and understand better in noisy environments, and even serve as an effective tool in treating patients with memory-destroying conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Researchers have also shown that playing music, which includes singing, activates the limbic center of the brain and releases chemicals, such as dopamine, that make us feel happy. And not only while you play — the benefits may stay with you into old age. In addition, the physiological and psychological dividends are especially important if you are a novice or if you are dusting off an instrument from your youth. Translation: As long as you are challenged in one way or another, being bad at an instrument is good for you.
“I call playing music ‘hitting the jackpot’,” says Nina Kraus, Ph.D., a neurobiologist at Northwestern University who recently published Of Sound Mind: How our brains construct a meaningful world of sound. Self-proclaimed multi-instrumentalist “hack”, she plays music every day, even though she lacks skill and only does it for a few minutes. Playing an instrument in a focused and deliberate way, she says, “engages so much of your brain, like the cognitive, sensory, motor, and reward systems, in ways that few other activities can. Like Kraus, I am an amateur. I took classes on and off when I was a young teenager, but I lacked the work ethic, patience, and, as years of therapy and reflection have taught me, the self-esteem necessary to do making mistakes and not judging yourself, especially in front of others. . So I gave it up. True to form, I spent the next three decades judging myself for this decision.
Then came a confluence of events that put me on my current path: the pandemic, the rise of Zoom, the specter of my 50th birthday, and my growing ability to care less and less about how I am. sounds good or bad to myself or to others. So I bought a cheap caveman battery, contacted a teacher, committed to weekly classes and a few hours a week of training, and set some goals for myself. Learning the Paul Simon melody was almost at the top of my list. It’s a sort of rite of passage for a drummer, a wildly inventive yet understated hybrid of syncopated jazz and military marching. Not that you know it when you hear me try it for the first time. Sitting on the drums I’m slow and sloppy and seemingly desperate. But with my frustration comes a real good mood, thanks to what I take away from Kraus. For starters, sounding bad doesn’t mean that I a m wrong; this is only the first step towards improvement. Second, the intense concentration that I employ and the mistakes I make while playing the most delicate nine notes of Gadd’s beautiful drum phrase are precisely the tools that do wonders for my brain.
It’s good, even beneficial, If you suck
IMAGINE A drone eye view of a jungle dotted with a handful of remote villages; these are the auditory cortex, frontal lobe, premotor cortex, corpus callosum and a host of other parts of the brain that process sounds, control body movements, correct errors on the fly, release dopamine, etc. . And in each of these villages, imagine a small population crowding there; They are neurons, tiny cells that carry messages from lobe to lobe, cortex to cortex, hemisphere to hemisphere. But without tracks or roads – in this case, a network of neural pathways – village neurons cannot send their signals from one place to another; each community is isolated from the next. It’s a picture of my brain trying to learn “50 Ways”. I’m so slow and focused that the sound of the metronome trips me up, at any speed. All neural signals are blocked in their villages, surrounded by the jungle.
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Jessica Grahn, Ph.D., is a cognitive neuroscientist who studies how these types of pathways are established using neuroimaging and electrodes to watch the brain respond to the act of playing music. She heads the Music and Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Western Ontario, where she is an Associate Professor. Being stuck in my brain brain village in the jungle, she explains, is not an indicator of talent or lack of talent. ” If you think, I’m not good at it, you have to remember it, It’s not because I’m bad, it’s because my brain hasn’t received the right information yet.”
By “inputs” she means message-carrying neurons that send signals along this elaborately constructed network of pathways. Now, taking Grahn’s explanation into account, imagine if I hack a trail from Village A to Village B to Village C. This is what happens to my brain after about 25 minutes deeply focused. I play the intro “50 Ways” at 52 beats per minute (BPM). But it’s like I’ve paved the way with a butter knife, because it’s about half the tempo of the song. In a few days, after regular practice, I will be comfortable with
92 BPM, and finally a maximum of 102 BPM. It won’t even be half-perfect, and I’ll never have Gadd’s finesse, but I know I can do it. Still, there is a caveat. If I don’t keep breaking through the bush, this jungle will grow back and I’ll have to start all over again. As with fitness, the adage “use it or lose it” applies to brain health.
Slow shrinking of the brain
SO WHAT, exactly, do we lose when our brains are sitting on the proverbial couch? On the one hand, the size. “Think of grapes, think of grapes,” jokes Ted Zanto, Ph.D., associate professor at UC San Francisco’s Neuroscape research lab, of brain shrinkage, especially after 40 years. “Well, maybe not exactly like that, but you got the idea.” Playing music, he says, can help maintain the size of a brain in the same way curls keep your arms firm and toned. And starting now helps build what scientists call cognitive reserves,
equivalent of muscle mass, which you can take with you into old age. This is why scientists are trying to spread the word among adults. Teaching older people to play music can improve cognition, memory, and the ability to hear more accurately. Plus, interacting with others through music maintains the flow of dopamine. This is all the more reason for all the scientists I have spoken to urge adults – especially older men, who have a way of isolating themselves – to pick up an instrument, take lessons, and play with them. others.
While learning the “50 Ways” groove, I decided to call Steve Gadd to find out how he came up with such a unique and eye-catching pattern. It was 1975, and Gadd was in a drum booth, trying to avoid boredom while Paul Simon and producer Phil Ramone were busy in another room. Gadd wanted to stay loose and be ready when they needed him, so he started tinkering with various models of hands and feet. In other words, he was creating, or at least maintaining, his neural network. “Then Phil and Paul heard what I was practicing,” says Gadd, who, at 76, runs steadily, continues to tour, and remains as sharp as the crackle of a snare drum. “And so Phil suggested that this groove, or something similar, might be a good approach. That’s how it started.
Gadd doesn’t attribute his memory, sharpness, or overall health to his life as a drummer. In fact, he’s unfamiliar with the science of musicality and brain health. That is, for him, the neurological benefits are a pleasant by-product of something bigger. “It’s about sharing the groove, the music and the emotions you feel, and the fun you have with people. . . . If you can achieve that level of communication and musicality, it’s worth it. “
For my part, I know that I will never achieve musical greatness. And it’s good. I’ve taught myself not to care – or at least care a lot less – about the way I sound. Yes, I want to improve myself. I want to learn every song in the credits of Gadd. I want to feel confident enough to form a band and play some deep 1970s songs for outdoor patio breweries or a handful of friends.
at a barbecue. But if these things don’t happen, I can still reap the rewards. Even spending a few minutes beating the drums a few days a week stimulates my neurons to send signals along their pathways, triggers dormant swathes of my brain, releases a burst of dopamine, and brightens my mood. I’d be crazy to stop playing.
This story appears in the December 2021 issue of Men’s health.