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!