An interview with Dr Jennifer MacRitchie from the MARCS Institute for Brain Behaviour and Development at University of Western Sydney was broadcast on ABC 891 on 14 June 2016.
Dr Mc Ritchie said research shows that the brain is plastic all the way through life and so we can learn new things all the time. This means that it is never too late to pick up a musical instrument. Research is being conducted at the University of Western Sydney on the benefits that older adults can gain from learning to play an instrument, such as the piano, at a later stage in life.
“The important thing for adults is that it doesn’t matter how well you are playing it, it is about learning to have some fun, and it is giving you all these added benefits along the way.
Playing a musical instrument requires a number of skills, and that is why it is very good as a brain work-out. You may have a score in front of you, some instructions that you look at, then your eyes send those signals to your brain which then convert those messages out to your hands and fingers. Sometimes you have to coordinate between different hands and your feet (like strumming on an ukulele where LH plays the chords and RH strums the rhythm). We are using the sounds that we produce as a feedback to the brain to prepare actions for the next sound and so on. Quite a number of actions are going on at the same time.
Research with stroke patients shows you can regain hand function by playing the piano and doing these sorts of exercises. Playing the piano is an enjoyable task so people are going to do it more often and they are going to get the benefits of that exercise. The auditory feedback (when you press a key and hear the sound) helps people reduce any error in movement they may be making so that they can increase their regularity on those types of tasks.
It is common for people to think that it is easier for a child to learn a new skill and that if you haven’t done it when young you have missed the boat. Children are learning all the time and most will have a go at anything. However, there are advantages of learning when you are older. As an adult you have different levels of motivation and you have responsibility for your own learning. You can do it if you want to. Also, learning in a group with other adults has great social benefits. It is a way to spend time with other people and get enjoyment from a shared activity.”
Mr MacRitchie said her research is tapping into the idea that playing the piano or any instrument can help with dexterity later in life. “We want to encourage more people to take up a musical instrument, as much as it will help with other daily activities, it is also something that is fun to do. So why not take up that activity that you have been sitting thinking about doing for a while?”