Feeling Low? Consider Taking up an Instrument

By Kieran Long: Music Columnist

Recently, the BBC posted an article detailing the sharp rise in sales of musical instruments from online retailers. One such retailer, Gear4music, has made £21.2m in UK sales between April and June, up 80% from the same period last year. According to staff, guitars and keyboards are bestsellers.

So why is this? Of course, with millions finding themselves unemployed or furloughed, a lot of people have far more free time. Yet all this free time is not necessarily a good thing, especially if you have nothing to fill it with.

A recent study showed that 69% of adults surveyed were “worried about the effect that the coronavirus (COVID-19) was having on their life now,” with 63% “feeling worried about the future,” 56% “feeling stressed or anxious,” and 49% “feeling bored.” Another study showed that mental health in the UK has worsened by an average of 8.1%, with young adults and women suffering most.

With these numbers in mind, it seems that the recent hike in instrument sales indicate that people are turning to them to fill their free time and combat these feelings.

Musicians often voice their dependence on music and its importance to their mental health. Yet for many, now more than ever, music is a particularly vital mental lifeline. One needs only to look at Hayley Williams, a musician marked by her sincerity regarding her mental wellbeing, and the ‘self-serenades’ she has been uploading to Instagram to see this relationship in practice.

“It’s a chaotic time. How to keep the stamina – the faith – necessary for real change? As I think about all this, my mind keeps going back to music. On a deeply personal note, if I didn’t have songs I’d see no reason to exist. In my own time, recharging and resting, songs let me know I’m not alone and they prove peace to me.” – Hayley Williams, Instagram Post

Of course, playing an instrument provides some sort of escapism, but are there any tangible health benefits? Yamaha would have you believe that playing an instrument has a litany of benefits, particularly for youngsters. In a promotional article published on The Independent, they suggest that playing an instrument helps people relax, provides a ‘workout for the brain,’ helps individuals work through emotions, and boosts confidence. But what do experts say?

One article found that playing music improved a variety of “subjective health outcomes, including anxiety and depression.” Other research has found that singing had the same effect, with those who sing in choirs reporting a better overall quality of life and health than those who did not.

Data suggests that this effect was particularly noticeable in women who play an instrument, sing, or perform in theatre. Curiously, these practices did not have the same effect on men, however, it was found that men who engage with these hobbies have a lower mortality rate.

As highly social creatures, we require some form of regular social activity to maintain our mental wellbeing. Therefore, instrument playing, which is potentially a highly social activity, can pay dividends towards our mental state.

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Psychologist and neuroscientist Stefan Koelsch suggests in his article on music-evoked emotions that there are “seven Cs” relating to the social functions of music. Playing music encourages: (1) contact with other individuals; (2) social cognition and awareness; (3) co-pathy, meaning the emotions of those playing music together can become homogenised, nurturing understanding and diminishing conflict between one-another; (4) communication; (5) coordination of actions, which, much like singing in a choir, people can derive pleasure from; (6) co-operation and; (7) social cohesion, which helps to satisfy our need to belong.

Crucially, these benefits are not age-dependent. A study of over 1000 individuals aged 64 and over “revealed that people who play an instrument/sing had statistically significantly higher scores on crystallized intelligence, processing speed, letter fluency, digit span forwards and backwards and learning.” Moreover, the instrumentalists surveyed had better memories and attention spans.

It should be emphasised that you do not need any prior music playing experience to reap these rewards. A study showed that six-months of learning to play the piano improved the mental processing speeds, planning ability, and the memory of older people, irrespective of if they had prior experience of playing an instrument. More research has shown that that instrument playing even helps with arthritis, decreasing the pain felt and increasing the dexterity and strength of people’s fingers.

This information suggests that instruments have an innate ability to rehabilitate. This notion is supported by an article detailing the effect instrument playing had on prisoners. The study involved a group of young offenders taking part in a 10-week music-making course and who were monitored for any change in their mental state. It was found that after completing the course, many of the prisoners reported an elevated sense of self-esteem and lower levels of anxiety.

“Music practice and participation can positively contribute to a flourishing and more vital life by positively influencing emotions, engagement, social relationships and personal meaning.” – Ola Ekholm, Knud Juel, and Lars Ole Bonde. Source.

A similar experiment was conducted with military veterans suffering from PTSD in the US. After taking part in guitar lessons for an hour a week for six weeks, results showed that most participants saw a positive effect on their condition, with one veteran noting, “I came here with some real serious anger issues; this takes my mind off everything.”

On a scientific level, instruments can do this due to their ability to increase ‘brain plasticity’ (the brain’s ability to change its composition). The multisensory experience that is learning an instrument exercises the brain, allowing it to reconfigure its neural pathways thus sharpening the mind. Because of this, research has shown that stroke victims who engage with musical instruments can reorganise the part of the brain that controls the motor functions in the body, giving them more control over their movements.

With all this in mind, if you are feeling down at the moment, seriously consider taking on some kind of musical endeavour. There are a plethora of apps and learning resources out there that make taking your first steps as simple and fun as possible. We all know someone who has said they would love to play an instrument but put it off for one reason or another. If that someone is you, no matter your age now is the time to start learning. You will not regret it.