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The Benefits of Learning to Play Music

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Is today’s consumer mentality robbing us of musicians? In the past, there seemed to be more motivation and more reasons to become a musician, so more people learned to play a musical instrument. I think it is a shame that a relatively low number of people are musicians in our consumer world today, and we are missing out on something.

Back then, to hear music someone had to play it - live. Today we just flick a switch. Most people are consumers of music, but not musicians. Musicians are seen as being the talented few. Is there any way we can change this mentality, and any reason to?

What Are We Missing Out On?

Music has become the domain of the professional. When I ask people if they drive, they answer “Yes” in a matter-of-fact way. They don’t try to compare themselves to Peter Brock or Mario Andretti, because they see driving as a normal part of life, not as a specialist skill. With music it’s different. When I ask people if they sing, many people get a bit embarrassed. Usually they’re too shy to answer, assuming the “Yes” answer implies a degree of talent or fame.

And yet singing is far more common in our society than playing a musical instrument. People sing at parties and karaoke, sing Happy Birthday, and sing along with their albums in the car - at least when the windows are up. Learning to play a musical instrument requires a decision, a commitment, and hours of learning and practice. Few people see a reason to make that leap. Even if they learn an instrument at school, few find a reason to continue playing as an adult.

I’m sure that somehow we are missing out on something by leaving music to the professionals. Our world would be better, more expressive, more creative with more musicians. As musicians ourselves, is there anything we can do to appropriately encourage others to learn an instrument?

Around the Internet, musicians are talking about the benefits of playing an instrument. Here are some of their main thoughts:

  • It is relaxing and relieves stress. When I was a teenager, my dad bought a cheap organ when away on a holiday. He wanted to learn how to play it because he thought it would relax him after work.
  • It sharpens our thinking. Many studies show that learning to play a musical instrument helps our memory and thinking. For the young, it can increase their reading level and the development of certain parts of the brain. Learning to play a musical instrument has been linked to learning to think mathematically by some studies.
  • It is an active interest. These days people spend a lot of their time being passive - watching TV and listening to music. Learning to play an instrument is very active, and gives people something worthwhile to do with their time.
  • It teaches discipline. It is challenging, and requires you to stick at it day after day, practicing regularly. It teaches time management and prioritizing, and perseverance.
  • It creates a sense of confidence and achievement. Eventually all of that practice pays off, and you learn to play a song on your favorite instrument, or perform in front of a crowd. That’s a great feeling, and it also teaches that hard work pays off.
  • It’s enjoyable and fun. And it’s fun in different ways - playing on your own, jamming with others, and performing to an audience are all satisfying in their own way.

A Brief Look at History

Music has always had a significant place in society. But the details of who plays music and where it is played has evolved over time. Since the invention of electricity, the way we listen to music has changed drastically, and this has had an impact on where musicians fit in society. Here is a quick summary:

The Distant Past

For millenia music has played a key part in bringing people together in celebration and entertainment, religion and war. Ancient artifacts and archaeological findings show people around the world and through the centuries playing a wide variety of musical instruments.

  • There was room in society for more musicians, because all music was played live. Not all musicians were professionals - playing a musical instrument was a normal part of life. Even today, tribal people in Australia, Africa, Asia and elsewhere play music when they get together, whether that be with wooden sticks, didgeridoos, hand drums or stringed and wind instruments.
  • Even in recent centuries before the discovery of electricity, families would get together around the piano, where a family member would play and the family sing along. Or they would go together to a concert to enjoy live music together.
  • Recorded music wasn’t a concept they were familiar with. The closest they had was sheet music, which required someone to learn to read and play music in order for it to be heard.

Records and Radios

After Ben Franklin discovered electricity, some new ways of enjoying music were invented: the record and the radio. This gave people a way of listening to music in their homes without having to play it themselves. But listening to music was still normally a group activity rather than an individual one.

  • Families and other social groups would sit around the radio together and enjoy the programmed music.
  • Listening to music was more social than it often is today. Unlike today, every member of a household didn’t have their own record player or radio. They were family belongings which were shared and generally listened to together.
  • The ability to play music was more valued than it is today. Parties and dances almost always featured live music rather than recorded.

The Walkman Phenomenon

Things changed drastically after Sony brought out the Walkman (and to some extent earlier with personal transistor radios). Listening to music became a highly personal activity, and the wearing of headphones meant that the experience often wasn’t shared.

  • Many people, particularly teenagers, started to wear headphones throughout most of the day, and disengaged from life and interacting with others. They made themselves at home in their own musical world.
  • The gear back then wasn’t as portable as things are today. A bunch of cassettes took up serious space in your bag, and spare batteries were a must - they ran out much faster than solid state. Lots of kids would make their own mix tapes on C90 cassettes to cut down on the amount of stuff they needed to carry. This made it a little bit harder to be antisocial.
  • There was now the expectation of being able to listen to music in settings that were impossible or inappropriate for musicians to be playing.

The iPod Takes Over

With the advent of the iPod, we can now take our entire music collection with us everywhere you go in a very portable device. How has that changed our musical world?

  • iPods encourage an individual experience rather than a shared one. Initially they came with headphones and no speaker, and were designed to normally be listened to by one person at a time. iPhones and iPod touches now have a small speaker, but that hasn’t changed this much.
  • Being able to carry so much music around in one device encourages the consumer mentality. There is little motivation to learn to play music yourself.
  • A lot of social music is now recorded music played by disc jockeys. It’s great that there are still bands playing in pubs and clubs, but there aren’t as many as there used to be.

Affordable Home Recording

On the other hand, with the increase of computer power in personal computers, creating a home music studio is now much more affordable.

  • Reasonable quality music recording is no longer only the domain of professionals.
  • Can home recording studios now encourage more people to get into music for themselves?

How Can We Encourage Others to Learn a Musical Instrument?

I don’t have all the answers, and I hope you’ll help me out in the comments. While not everyone is cut out to be a musician, I’m sure a lot of people who would enjoy it are missing out.

How can we encourage others to learn to play music? Here are a few ideas:

  • Be proactive. Carry a musical instrument (like an acoustic guitar) around with you, and encourage others to try. Teach them a few chords.
  • Games. There are computer games and console games like Guitar Hero that are good for teaching timing, learning to identify the different instruments in an arrangement, and involve fingers and/or feet. Play the games with your friends. They’re fun, and might get your friends to consider learning a real instrument.
  • Computer programs. I know quite a few people who love dabbling with Fruity Loops and GarageBand to create and arrange songs. Give your friends a go when they come to visit.
  • Encourage our own kids. If you have kids, buy them musical toys when they are young. Get them music lessons or encourage them to join the school band when they are older. Don’t push them, but give them opportunities to discover whether they love playing music.
  • Help form bands. If you know a few people who play musical instruments, introduce them. Invite them to jam together, and plant the idea of forming a band. Even if they only play in the garage, they’ll have a ball.
  • Provide recording opportunities. Probably a lot of you reading this article will have a home studio. Don’t hog all the fun yourself - share it. Invite musicians to come and record themselves. Make sure you teach them to have a healthy respect for your equipment, too.
  • Become a mentor. Half way through writing this article, I was invited to go to a meeting with some other “old” musicians and encourage some up-and-coming teenage musicians. The meeting was very positive. The kids were enthusiastic, and we were able to tell some of the stories of how we learned to play.

I’d love to hear from you. Do you agree that the world would benefit from more musicians? How can we encourage others to learn to play music? Let us know in the comments.

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