How Playing an Instrument Makes You Smarter

The art of making music has long been hailed as a form of self-expression—helping us free our spirits and tap into our emotions. But did you know that in addition to the expressive benefits that music has on the soul, learning to play an instrument also has a plethora of benefits on the brain?

Studies show that music education makes you smarter in the following remarkable ways:

An upgraded control panel

What’s happening in your brain:

The ability of our brain to adapt quickly in changing environments requires technical and emotional aspects of the brain to be working simultaneously. Higher levels of this skill, also known as executive functioning, sets up the brain for optimal use in challenging and unpredictable life situations.

However, this ability is not something one is innately equipped with, but rather something that one has the potential to develop. Because making music is a complex neurological and multisensory experience, musicians often have high levels of executive functioning.

playing an instrument makes you smarter

Think of it like air traffic systems—with multiple tasks and activities happening at the same time, maintaining the quality of the control panel is key!

The end result:

  • Improved memory and focus

  • Better decision-making and planning abilities

  • Greater attention to detail

  • Ability to successfully multitask and prioritize tasks

  • Enhanced self-control and mental flexibility (the ability to switch gears and experience unexpected change without becoming flustered)

A workout for your entire brain

What’s happening in your brain:

Much like playing a sport results in better physical conditions than simply watching a sport, making music has been shown to strengthen the brain more than just listening to music. This is because when you’re learning to play an instrument or sing, you’re exercising every area of your brain and, in turn, modifying your brain’s structure and function—also known as neuroplasticity.

When scientists compared brain activity of individuals solving math problems or reading to those that were listening to music, the results were vastly different. In the latter group, it was a fireworks show of neurotransmitters.

This happens when cognitive and sensory changes are triggered, our brain must synchronize this flow of information. Additionally, when the activity in the brain of those music listeners were compared with music players, the fireworks “turned into a jubilee.”

“There is not a time involved in musical activity that you are not engaging all areas of the brain,” says Chip Staley, Merit’s Wind Symphony Director. These areas include auditory, visual, and motor. Each system has a specific function that plays a part in making the brain stronger.

As these systems work together, communication between both hemispheres of the brain becomes faster and clearer. With musical training, the brain applies these skills to learning other types of information.

The end result:

  • Higher IQ (up to 10% higher!)

  • Enhanced academic performance

  • Boosted problem-solving and critical thinking skills (especially important for careers in STEM)

  • Improved linguistic abilities and creativity

Playing an Instrument Makes You Smarter

Advanced communication skills

What’s happening in your brain 

Learning music has been shown to promote similar cognitive attributes to that of learning another language. This is because music essentially has a language of its own with order, rhythm, pitch, and melodies.

It’s no wonder then why music is often incorporated into language development, especially in early childhood. Playing an instrument activates sensory networks in the brain, which strengthens language functions such as fluency and word retrieval.

Studies show that parts of the brain used for language were more active in musicians versus non-musicians.

The end result:

  • Better bilingual abilities

  • Improved reading skills

  • Stronger receptive language (understanding information in a variety of ways such as movements, gestures, signs, or symbols)

At Merit School of Music, we’ve seen the impact that a deep, sustained music education has on kids and teens—from success in school to continuing on to have thriving careers as doctors, lawyers, and professional musicians. Start making music and working out your brain today!