July 3, 2020

The educational value of learning a musical instrument


As the pressure on students to achieve stellar grades at school and university has mounted, and the daunting prospect of an increasingly competitive graduate job market looms over us, the value of extra-curricular pursuits is at risk of being somewhat clouded. Of course, achieving strong grades is important for students to have something to show for their intelligence and hard work, but as more and more students achieve top grades at university, the question of what students have beyond their exam results must be kept in mind. I do not for a moment suggest that playing a musical instrument is a golden ticket into your university or job of choice, but it is my firm belief that playing music offers not only the well-documented cognitive benefits, but also certain invaluable life skills which can give students that extra something beyond just good exam results.

First of all, playing music can have a hugely positive on students’ cognitive functioning. A 2013 study at the University of St Andrews found that a group of musicians were notably quicker to pick up mistakes and correct them than a group of non-musicians. The study also found that those with moderate levels of musical activity demonstrated superior executive functioning, in areas such as ‘action planning, goal-orientation, the inhibition of inappropriate responses, and response monitoring.’ One of the remarkable things about this research was that it was carried out with amateur musicians, leading psychologist Dr Ines Jentzsch to conclude that ‘even moderate levels of musical activity can benefit brain functioning.’ This means that students do not to be highly dedicated, long-term musicians in order to feel the benefits of playing an instrument. If there is a piano in the house, a guitar lying around, or indeed any instrument, I would urge you to pick it up and try learning a new song, or just have 15 minutes of working on your technique. Although it may seem like a waste of time when exam pressure is mounting, there is no doubt that the cognitive benefits of playing will ultimately benefit not only exam performance, but also your intellectual ability outside of the classroom.

Improving at a musical instrument is by no means easy, and in some ways this is one of the great values of the pursuit. Considerable patience and perseverance is required to learn a new piece of music or develop your technical skill in playing an instrument, and there are no shortcuts to success. Having a consistent and diligent approach to practise is imperative, and these values can translate into many non-musical pursuits also. For me, the perseverance that was needed to learn the ‘cello and the trombone has majorly benefitted my study of languages. Having spent a long time grappling with the beginner stages of learning both instruments, I was well aware when learning Arabic that although these steps were frustrating at times, the final results would come. For other students, developing a solid approach to work through music may help them to tackle difficult literature, work on their understanding of mathematical problems, develop new skills such as coding, or practise certain sporting skills. Whatever it may be, patience and perseverance will always be a prerequisite for real improvement, and I firmly believe that playing music can be instrumental in developing these qualities.

Finally, playing a musical instrument can bolster one’s confidence. Performing a piece of music requires self-expression, and regular practice and performance can help one to become more familiar with this sensation. Particularly as you begin to perform in front of family and friends, and perhaps even larger audiences, your ability to deal with pressure will improve, as will your self-belief. From delivering presentations with confidence to writing with greater self-assuredness, these skills can be extremely useful inside and outside of the educational sphere. I want to stress again here that one does not have to be a musical prodigy in order to give an enjoyable performance to a group of family or friends. Even if you can only play a few basic tunes, letting a friend or a family member hear you play can really help you to develop your self-belief, as well as offering a good target to have in mind whilst practising your instrument.

With these benefits of learning a musical instrument in mind, I would urge anyone to make time in their day for playing music, whether you have never played before or have been playing for years. You may find 20 minutes of daily practice going a lot further than you would have expected!