22 July 2012


" ~ to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak."
~William Congreve

If that be so, my breast must be permanently soothed, and surrounded by limp rocks.  Music has been integral to my life since earliest memory ~ listening to 1940s and 50s radio, and playing the recorder in my first grade band.  Riding the bus home from school, I would sit behind the driver (Graden Green, rest his soul) and sing my little heart out until he would have to turn around and tell me to quiet down.  Which worked for about thirty seconds, then gradually my volume would increase again.  Poor man.

My early childhood repertoire included not only the pop and big band hits of that era, but also an early dose of classical music.  (Hint ~ 'The Lone Ranger' wasn't the only radio show to adopt a classical work as its theme music.)  Perhaps this explains my later love for classical music.  In junior high and high school, I played French horn ~ quite well, given that I had no formal lessons.  I also sang baritone.  During my senior year I played or sang in no fewer than 16 instrumental and vocal ensembles and solos, which (along with a passionate first love) may account for the sharp dip in my GPA, erasing my chances for a college scholarship.  The price I paid for my art.  

Throughout adulthood, I continued to learn music ~ classical guitar, dulcimer, keyboards, djembe, and singing with an adult community choir.  I don't perform anymore, but during my daily physical therapy workout, I play classical music on CD, which my cats love.  They relax near the speakers and soak it in.  I love that.

I'm convinced that early exposure not only to listening, but to performing music has cognitive benefits for children (particularly if they are exposed to classical music, which has stood the test of time in sophistication, nuance, and emotional expression).  It takes time and patience to become skilled, which not only develops character but becomes a source of deep personal pride.  I'm not alone in that assessment.  Studies have confirmed the benefits of learning to play music, the most recent of which reveals that "musicians with at least 10 years of instrumental training remain cognitively sharp into advanced age .... The study conforms that musical activity preserves cognition as we age.  A range of cognitive benefits, including memory, was sustained for musicians between the ages of 60-80 if they played for at least 10 years throughout their life, confirming that maintenance of advantages is not reliant on continued activity."  In other words, if you stop playing, you don't lose the benefit.  

The optimal age of acquisition (beginning to play) appears to be prior to age 9, for maximum enhanced cognition in advanced age.  This is consistent with early sensitive periods in brain development while acquiring other skills, such as learning a foreign language.  And if you didn't learn that young, do not despair.  It is literally never too late to become musically active, not merely for the brain function benefits, but for the sheer joy of it.

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