Strike Up the Music!

Even if you've never played an instrument before, you can still learn. The rewards are many, and now's the time to start.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Photo by Renee Vernon
The Prime Time Band, part of the New Horizons program.

You step into the classroom. Immediately you're embraced by sound—the scuffing of a chair, the clack of an instrument case opening—and washing through it all, the sweet, random sounds of lively chat and laughter.

You finger the clarinet in your hands. It was your daughter's. After all those years of paying for lessons and attending school concerts, now it's your turn. You've dreamed of making your own music—of playing songs you love, songs that make people tap their feet and hum along. And here you are, ready to purse your lips and make your first sound, play your first notes.

You are a musician.

Sound impossible? Far from it. No matter what your age or background, you can take up an instrument tomorrow. And according to the latest research on the many benefits of music, you should—for the good of your body, mind, and spirit.

Getting started isn't as difficult as you might think. Individual and group lessons targeted toward older adults abound at senior centers and community schools for the arts. Senior choruses, many of which started small in residential facilities or senior centers, are growing in size and number. There are even bands and other ensembles created just for elders who are beginning musicians.

The fact is, there's never been more opportunity for you to make music a rich and rewarding part of your life.


More than soothing the savage breast

"If the FDA knew how powerful music was, they'd make it the FDMA," jokes Karl Bruhn, a former marketing executive at Yamaha Music Corporation and often called the father of the music making and wellness movement. "It's healthful," he says, "and there are no side effects."

We know intuitively that music can challenge us as well as move us. But research over the last 20 years has shown how extensively music engages our brains, and on a number of levels. When scientists in the late 1980s began to explore how the brain processes music, they unearthed several immediate connections, most notably the correlation between music and spatial reasoning in children, and the well-publicized Mozart Effect, which prompted type-A parents to see blasting Beethoven as a shortcut to academic excellence.

But music is not just good for kids, it turns out. The Music Making and Wellness Project found that retirees who took group keyboard lessons showed better mental and physical health than their non-keyboarding cohorts. The majority of keyboardists not only demonstrated decreased anxiety (which is linked in turn to better cognitive performance, learning, and decision-making), but they also experienced decreased depression and loneliness. In addition, there was an increase in the levels of human growth hormone [hGH]; an hGH decline is associated with osteoporosis, energy levels, wrinkling, sexual function, muscle mass, and aches and pains.

Even degenerative conditions such as dementia appear to be offset by making music. A 1999 study showed that patients with Alzheimer's disease who engaged in four weeks of structured music therapy (interactive sessions that combined drumming and singing along with favorite old and new songs), showed marked rises in melatonin, a neurohormone linked with sleep regulation and believed to influence the immune system. The novice drummers became more active, slept better, and were more cooperative with their nurses.

A year later, another study on drumming pointed to further body benefits. Group "composite" drumming classes, which incorporate a variety of rhythmic activities, appear to boost the function of natural killer cells, which find and destroy cancer and virus-infected cells in the body, according to Dr. Barry Bittman of the Mind-Body Wellness Center in Meadville, Pennsylvania, the study's lead researcher and an advocate of the mind-body benefits of music. "Composite drumming enables people to enjoy myriad psychological and physical benefits," Bittman says. "While immersed in this form of music making, their tension is rapidly transformed into a joyful, moving, and enlivening experience."

The more researchers uncover these multilayered links connecting music and memory, language, reasoning, and overall health, the more we see how deeply rooted in the brain music is. And as many elders can testify, music can be a key to unlocking all kinds of doors.


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