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Learning to Play a Musical Instrument in Adulthood

Musical training extends neuroplasticity and confers extra-musical benefits.

Key points

  • At least some music-related skills can be improved through training.
  • By practicing a musical instrument, we can extend the window of when we learn new skills efficiently.
  • Some studies show that musicians tend to outperform nonmusicians on a broad range of cognitive tasks.
Source: Chatchai wa/Shutterstock
Source: Chatchai wa/Shutterstock

Some of us find it challenging to translate written musical notations into auditory signals and/or motor programming. Some cannot tell one tone apart from another. Some struggle with keeping up with the rhythm. Still others experience a mental block when being asked to improvise music on the spot. Thus, rather than portraying music aptitude as a singular umbrella term, for the purpose of this discussion, we find it helpful to refer to the various components that make up music aptitude as a series of music-related skills.

Pitch discrimination refers to the ability to tell apart two tones that differ in frequencies. On the one end of the spectrum, there are individuals who excel at this type of task, so much so that if you blindfold them and press a random key on the piano, they can immediately name what they hear. These individuals are noted as having an absolute or perfect pitch. On the other end of the spectrum, there are individuals who cannot tell the difference between one tone and another. In between the two extremes, there are individuals who vary in relative pitch-discrimination skills—i.e., the ability to correctly identify and label musical intervals when a reference note has been provided.

Ear training can fine-tune our pitch discrimination skills. Practicing playing an instrument with a metronome can improve the accuracy of our sense of rhythm. Whether through learning from expert improvisers, learning music theory, experimenting on our own, or jamming with street musicians, we can stretch our improvisation skills a bit more than what we are naturally endowed with. Likewise, we can improve sightreading skills by leveraging the power of modern technologies and by participating in community orchestra/ensemble rehearsals.

Musical Training May Extend Our Window of Neuroplasticity

Learning to play a musical instrument requires fine motor control. Although as young children, we tend to develop motor skills more quickly than in teenage years and beyond, people continue to improve various motor skills throughout their lives and at their own pace. Furthermore, musical training can extend our window of neuroplasticity beyond the early teenage years. How so? Via long-term potentiation (LTP). Neuroplasticity is a technical term that refers to our nervous system’s responsiveness to internal or external stimuli by spontaneously reorganizing itself. In the context of learning a new skill such as picking up a musical instrument. It is a time window during which we feel more at ease and feel that we are learning at a faster rate. LTP refers to a process of strengthening the connections and/or rewiring of the synapses, often as a result of working out our brain in specific ways for a significant amount of time. Thus, just by practicing a musical instrument, we can extend the preset time window during which we learn new skills more efficiently.

Music Training May Confer Extra-Cognitive Benefits

Some studies show that musicians tend to outperform nonmusicians on a broad range of cognitive tasks that are not directly related to music-making. However, the direction of musical training effects is not entirely clear. It is, in a way, similar to the age-old “chicken-and-egg” problem: Do musicians start out with better cognitive abilities than the general population, and gravitating toward musical training is a natural consequence of those individuals’ having advanced cognitive abilities to start with? Or is it, rather, the other way around, in that those who undergo musical training end up improving a wide range of cognitive skills, including ones that are not directly related to music-making itself? Within the musical training literature, some researchers reported that while musicians do better on tasks that are music-related (e.g., pitch discrimination), as a group, musicians are no better than the general public in performance on general cognitive tasks that are not directly related to music making.

However, many studies do find significant differences between those who are musically trained and those who are not, even on cognitive tasks that are not directly related to music. Those findings suggest that through musical training, we may be able to improve not only music-related skills but also a broad range of cognitive skills (e.g., numerical, visuospatial, verbal) that are involved in successfully executing our job duties and living fulfilling lives. Of course, to embrace this possibility, we must be comfortable accepting the assumption that musicians do not start out having more advanced cognitive abilities in their childhood and prior to undergoing musical training.


Criscuolo, A., Bonetti, L., Särkämö, T., Kliuchko, M., & Brattico, E. (2019). On the association between musical training, intelligence, and executive functions in adulthood. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1704.

Wang, L. (2022). Music aptitude, training, and cognitive transfer: a mini-review. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 903920.

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