Healthy Beginnings

Why Retirement Can Be an Excellent Time to Learn to Play an Instrument

Think you are too old to learn to play a musical instrument? Think again! If you have always dreamed of making sweet melodies on the piano, or penning your passions into songs, retirement can be the ideal time to learn how.

Not only do seniors have more time and often more appreciation for musical studies, but research shows that learning and playing an instrument in your golden years can yield bountiful benefits. The therapeutic value of musical training includes a boost in brain functionality, a strengthening of the immune system, and an increase in positive thinking–not to mention that learning to play an instrument can be a lot of fun.

Memory Enhancement: Musical study can play an important role in helping seniors keep a sharp mind. Research links playing an instrument to the stimulation of areas of the brain involved with memory, which may have implications in preventing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

For example, a 21-year study by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx followed 469 seniors between the ages of 75 and 85 who did not have dementia at beginning of the study. The results, which were published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003, demonstrated a strong association between cognitively challenging leisure activities, including playing a musical instrument, and a decreased risk of developing dementia.

Another study, conducted in an Illinois retirement home, revealed that seniors, ranging in age from their late 70s to early 90s, saw a 50 to 70 percent improvement in their memory after just 16 weeks of learning a new musical instrument. It is believed that the processes involved in playing a musical instrument may provide the cognitive exercise the brain needs to protect itself against memory loss.

Physical Benefits: Physical health and playing an instrument also seem to go hand in hand. Research by Dr. Frank Wilson of the University Of California School Of Medicine in San Francisco found that learning to play a musical instrument, besides bettering concentration and memory, also enhanced physical abilities such as coordination and even the improvement of eyesight and hearing. Another study, the Music Making and Wellness Project, documented that seniors given keyboard lessons had a 90 percent increase in their levels of human growth hormone (hGH), a chemical important in slowing such aging factors as osteoporosis, wrinkling and aches and pains.

Mental Health Benefits: Learning to play music can help seniors beat the blues, too. The Music Making and Wellness Project also discovered that the seniors who learned to play the keyboard reported decreased depression, lessened anxiety and lowered loneliness levels. In 2005, a research study led by Dr. Barry Bittman found that playing a musical instrument reduced stress more than other relaxing activities such as reading the newspaper.

We live in uncertain times and many people are carrying heavy stress burdens. Playing a musical instrument can help you refocus on the sublime and feel transported to a more tranquil place.

Other Advantages of Musical Studies by Seniors: Learning music can help with memory retention, and adds to your physical and emotional well-being, but learning an instrument in your senior years has other pluses as well. These include allowing you to express yourself spiritually and creatively, and even introducing you to new friendships as you pursue your love of music. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, you can enrich the lives of your grandchildren and others around you through the gift of music.

Getting Started: Find an instructor who has experience teaching older adults who are beginners. Also, look for a music instructor who is a professional musician with a good reputation in the community. Affordability is also a consideration, and whether the instructor is willing to travel to you, as some seniors feel more at ease learning in the comfort of their own home.

It is important to find an instructor with a friendly, uplifting personality. You need someone who is patient, encouraging and who has vision so that your music lesson becomes one of the highlights of your week, rather than something you dread. You will remain enthusiastic about practicing and you will be less likely to quit if you have a music instructor who views your learning an instrument as a retiree as an exciting new journey in your life.

Do not feel intimidated to pick up the phone and schedule that first lesson. Weeks from now, when you are learning to play and reaping the benefits of music instruction, you will be glad you did not let fear of the unknown stop you.

Why is learning music so good for us? Well, learning to play and read music is like learning a new language–it requires abstract thinking as well as hand-eye coordination. It challenges us cognitively and physically. It is an outlet for us to express ourselves emotionally. And, yes, don’t forget that learning to make beautiful music can be a source of great enjoyment in your golden years, not just for you, but for those who listen to you play.


1. Joe Verghese, M.D., et al. “Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly, “ New England Journal of Medicine 348:2508-2516 (6/19/03)

2. Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D., “Learning an Instrument Seems to Help Mental Function,” Daily Herald; (9/26/05) health/256111/learning_an_instrument_seems_to_help_mental_function/

3. M Mueller, “Right Brain Strategies for the Full Development of the Individual Through Study of the Arts,” A Review of General Session II ACC- VACC Conf., Sacramento, Ca. (2/21/84). City College of San Francisco

4. Midori Koga, “The Music Making and Wellness Project,” American Music Teacher, Oct-Nov 2005 is_2_55/ai_n15696757

5. Midori Koga, “The Music Making and Wellness Project,” American Music Teacher, Oct-Nov 2005 is_2_55/ai_n15696757

6. “Playing a musical instrument found to reverse stress,” American Music Teacher, June-July 2005 is_6_54/ai_n14710077/pg_1