S1E37. This Is Your Brain On Music

Music therapy has been used effectively for some time to treat agitation in dementia patients and to help surface personal memories. Its potential role as a protective factor in staving off cognitive decline, though, has been less well-researched, but there are indications that it might be useful.

A lower incidence of dementia has been found among professional musicians than the population in general. People who had some musical training in their lives experienced slower cognitive decline than those who did not. Listening to music, singing, and playing an instrument have all been linked to enhanced cognitive performance.

One of the 5 pillars of brain health is to engage in cognitive challenges. Learning to play a new instrument is often cited as an ideal undertaking. After all, playing music requires you to learn a new language that involves hand-eye coordination, short- and long-term memory, fine-motor control, and auditory and visual symbol discrimination. What more could you ask for?

So I decided to teach myself how to play the recorder. You know…the flute-like instrument we all played in 4th grade.

The problem, though, is that I have a less than intimate relationship with music. 

When I was 7 or so, I started piano lessons. I learned the notes pretty quickly, but I was completely flummoxed by the prospect of playing different notes with each hand at the same time. I quit after my third lesson.

In 5th grade, I used to lip-sync during group singing in Mrs. Wolfe’s music class because I knew I couldn’t carry a tune. As an adult, I have a singing range of about 6 notes that I can hit with any consistency.

When I started to listen to the radio, I was drawn to the doo-wop sound of the ’50s (oldies) and then Motown (The Temptations, Four Tops, Supremes and Smokey Robinson). Of course, I loved the Beatles, Four Seasons and Beach Boys. 

While in high school, I asked my parents for an electric guitar. It turned out I had no ear for music and couldn’t even tune the damn thing!

In college, I was pretty much a creature of my environment when it came to musical taste. If I heard a song enough times, I liked it. I depended on my dorm mates to buy the albums and do the playing. The only artist I ever discovered by myself was Elton John after I heard ‘Your Song’ for the first time.

When I was the Director of Newark Symphony Hall, I attended performances by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and New Jersey State Opera. But without any training or background in classical music, neither held my attention. I would drift off into my inner world until the applause at the end of a piece jolted me back.

The language of music is as foreign to me as the language of science is familiar. About 15 years ago, I bought a book called ‘Music Theory for Dummies.’ I didn’t get very far. 

So here I am, back at it, taking another shot at finding personal harmony with music. I bought a teach-yourself-recorder workbook that came with a CD so I can play along and check myself. So far, so good. I’ve learned 10 notes already and can play ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ I’m understanding full notes and half notes and rests and 3/4 time. I’ve even been introduced to F# and the key of G Major!

We’ll see how far I get, but it’s been a better-than-expected launch.

In addition to learning to play the recorder, I’m also listening to more music. When we moved, Sally and I made the decision not to throw out our vinyl, even though we hadn’t played any of the albums or 45s in more than two decades. Keeping them, though, came with a commitment to actually play them. Having set up a sound system and purchased a pair of awesome speakers the first month we were in the new apartment, we now set aside time after dinner each night to play an album from our combined collections. 

A lot of Sally’s music is new to me but I find I’m enjoying it on first hearing. When playing my music, I notice I’m picking up more of the words and hearing more instruments than I recall hearing before; it’s not so much a blur as it used to be. 

Apparently, something good is happening inside my brain!



  1. tencat9511771 says:

    Wonderful! I love music! I was never afforded the opportunity for lessons when I was a child. My two older brothers ruined it for us younger ones since they began lessons and abandoned them and parents decided we were all alike in abandonment propensity.

    Thank you for this reminder to listen regularly to music. Every time I remember to stream jazz from WRTI my mood is lifted. Anytime I play the oldies I find myself singing along, amazingly remembering the words to songs from 60 years ago! And feeling happy.

    Maybe we can all pick up an instrument and play together at our next gathering. After a few beers we may not care if we are a little off tone.

    Thanks for sharing your journey.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If we get together and play music, we’ll also get brain-health brownie points for socializing! 😀


  2. Zella Felzenberg says:

    When the going gets tough you can always resort to singing “Johnny One Note”. I hope the one note is in your range.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh no…I don’t think I can hit E Flat!!! 😀


  3. Richard Clay Piper says:

    I think it was 7th grade when the music teacher humiliated me by singling out my voice in a class of about 30 kids as really bad. The only other time I really tried to sing was putting my children to bed at night. One night, one of them said “Daddy, don’t sing”. That pretty much did it. Both my daughters have really good voices and our youngest went to the Berklee College of Music and really learned the music theory. She also discovered 200 other kids who were willing to kill to be
    “that one” in the voice category. Not liking competition or responding well to criticism, she found that Berklee also had one of the best Music Therapy programs. Total winner. Plus you can get a job.

    There is a Glen Campbell documentary “I’ll Be Me” about his decline due to Alzheimers. The depth that music goes in our brains is astounding. The man could not find the bathroom in his own home but could sing his songs and even play wonderful guitar solos when prompted. Our daughter has lots of data and theories about music and the brain. Music is almost the last intellectual faculty to go besides our autonomic functions and basic functions like eating, etc.
    There is another documentary, “Alive Inside”, which follows a social worker who programs CD’s with music from the formative (brain – ages 18-25) years of the lives of a number of older folks who are suffering from mental declines of one sort or another. The music literally brings some of them alive. Fascinating.

    After mastering the recorder, we expect Wayne to study the oboe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for elaborating. My guess is that since the hippocampus (which plays a primary role in memory) is nested inside the temporal lobe (responsible for processing sound) that there are a lot of connections between the two giving rise to music’s miraculous effects.


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