How Playing A Musical Instrument Improves Memory

This is a guest post written by Aeyons drums teacher Magesh.

I always thought I had a bad memory. That was until recently I did a gig with a corporate band. I got called to fill in an hour before the show started because the regular drummer fell ill. Some people would think this type of situation would be stressful. I thrived on it.

Before the show, I went over the setlist with the musical director. I knew about 90 percent of the material. He told me to write down how the songs finished. This band was notorious for changing the setlist during the performance. This was because they would see the audience might respond more favourably to a specific style of music.

We start playing the show, it is going well. All the musicians sound great. I can see the crowd loves punk-pop music because of the way they react. About five songs into the set the singer goes off-script. He turns around to the band and yells out 'Small things'!. The last time I played this song by the band 'Blink 182' was in 1999. I'm not sure how this happens but I count the song in, I remember how the beat in the verse goes, what happens in the chorus when it switches to halftime. Also how the song ends. What I displayed was a memory in peak performance. I struggle to comprehend how I can play a song note perfect which I haven't played for 20 years but fail to remember where my car keys are. It doesn't stop there. I can recite the snare drum solo from the 'Charles Wilcoxen' book on page 144 from memory but could not tell you what I had for lunch last Wednesday.

This realization led me down a road of discovery and frustration. I wanted to know how learning an instrument could improve your memory. I wanted to know if your brain could remember music, could it also remember things related to everyday life? Things like passwords and shopping lists.

I read an article that confirmed my thoughts.

“Perhaps it comes from having to remember a setlist of songs, or perhaps as a side-effect of the different pathways in the brain, but musicians seem to have an above-average memory.” (source)

When a musician practices a piece of music, whether it's a song by Ozzy Osborne or Beethoven there are simply lots of bars to remember. There are rests, repeats, first-time bars, signs, codas, and outros. How successful a musician is at remembering music can come down to how much they practice it. There are other factors involved. Some people have better retention.

This article mentioned the benefits of learning a musical instrument at any age and how it affects memory.

“While learning to play an instrument as a child provides life-long benefits to the brain, taking music lessons in your 60s – or older – can boost your brain’s health as well, helping to decrease the loss of memory and cognitive function.” (source)

I realized what an integral part mnemonics (systems for memory cues) play in learning music. Every kid learned the alphabet as a kid by 'singing' it. It doesn't matter where you grew up or how old you are. If I sang to you or a random 5-year-old kid 'A, B, C D...E, F, G' I'm pretty sure you both could sing the rest of the alphabet. (Hopefully, you can sing it in tune!)

This melody has a proven track record of getting people to learn the alphabet for decades. It is far more effective than trying to recite 26 letters.

Mnemonics are also how students are taught the notes on the treble clef. Nearly everyone learned the recorder in primary school. They also learned that 'Every good boy deserves fruit' which corresponded to the lines for treble clef. 'A cow eats grass' was taught for the spaces between the lines.

There are many things you have to remember when playing a musical instrument, elements that go way beyond the musical notes. Things like correct fingering, embouchure, pitch, and tempo. Having to remember so much information can only help your memory whether you plan to be a professional musician or just play on the weekend for fun.

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