Senior man playing guitar for senior woman

Playing Music at an Older Age: The Benefits and Instruments You Should Consider Picking Up

While retirement may be relaxing, the constant downtime might leave you eager for a new hobby. Were you ever interested in playing a musical instrument? Well, it’s not too late to learn, despite the misconception that you should start taking lessons at an early age. In fact, researchers have discovered that learning an instrument shows positive effects on a senior’s health and well-being.

Here are a few benefits that could hit the right notes for any senior, as well as some instrument recommendations that might strike a chord with you.

The Benefits

Exercises Your Brain: You may not realize the amount of multitasking it takes to practice an instrument. You’re reading sheet music, counting out rhythms, locking into the beat and trying to sound musical all at the same time. It seems exhausting, but you’d be surprised of the benefits of all this activity. “For many seniors, maintaining strong cognitive skills is a high priority as they age, and learning an instrument is a great way to work on memory, concentration and coordination,” says Meredith Hamons, founder and clinical director of North Austin Music Therapy.

The Hearing Journal reported on a study that had seniors practicing piano three hours a week for three months. At the end of the experiment, the seniors showed an improvement in processing speed and memory, while the controlled group exhibited no changes. Tonya Blum, Board Certified Music Therapist for the Music Therapy Institute of Dallas, adds, “There is a growing body of work that suggests that the simple act of learning something new can reduce the effects of Alzheimer’s. Putting that with the other benefits of music, it seems to me like there is no age at which we should stop learning to play music.”

Relieves Stress: After a long day, there are several ways to unwind. Some people like to read, some like to take a walk, but others use a musical instrument as their source of relaxation.

Rachelle Norman, founder and director of Soundscaping Source, states, “We know from neurological research that doing music lights up many parts of the brain, including centers for memory and emotion in the limbic system. We also know that playing music can increase levels of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. In other words, we can see in research now what we've always known — making music feels good.”

The next time you find yourself stressed out, don’t flip on the TV in your apartment or lounge area. Try strumming a few chords or tickling the ivories if your community has a piano, then evaluate how you feel after a productive practice session.

Sets Goals to Accomplish: No matter how big or small they may be, goals provide a sense of direction, motivation and purpose in your life. As you learn your new instrument, think of some goals you can achieve. Be honest and realistic with yourself, though. If you’ve only practiced piano for two weeks, mastering Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” might be too high of a mountain to climb. Try perfecting the staple beginner songs like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Yankee Doodle” and care about each note you play.

Goals make your life more challenging, but once you accomplish your set goals, you’ll feel a sense of personal satisfaction and pride. The more you chip away at your goals, the more you’ll realize your full potential.

Offers a Way to Connect with People: At the age of retirement, loneliness can get the best of you from time to time. Believe it or not, picking up an instrument can be a healthy way to combat isolation and make new connections with people.

Blum affirms: “People are more likely to try something new when their family and peers are involved in the activity. It is much easier to get someone to try something new in a group than it is one on one. People feel safer in groups, and music is just more fun in groups, too.”

Whichever one of our communities you call home, there’s a good chance that other musicians live there. Ask your executive director if he or she knows any residents who are musically inclined. Renowned poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” If you think this sentiment rings true, then you should have no problem forming new bonds with other like-minded seniors.

Instruments You Should Consider Learning

To set the record straight, there are no “wrong” or “right” instruments to choose. However, there are a few things to keep in mind when deciding on what instrument to learn.

“Seniors should consider physical limitations when choosing instruments,” Norman says. “Some instruments may be difficult to play for someone with a physical condition like arthritis (guitar, violin) or difficulty breathing (trombone, oboe).”

Also, consider your living situation and the instrument’s volume. For example, an acoustic drum kit is not an ideal choice for a shared living space. Regardless, here are some instrument suggestions to get you started on your musical journey.

Piano/Keyboard: One of the major reasons why piano is such a useful instrument to learn is because it gives you a solid foundation in music theory. All the notes are laid out in front of you, which helps you see and understand the relationship between chords and scales. Think about purchasing a keyboard with weighted keys if your community does not have a common room with a piano. It replicates the feel and sound of a real piano without the bulkiness.

Guitar: The guitar is one of the most accessible and affordable instruments on the market. There are plenty of resources at your disposal including books, in-person lessons, online lessons and even video games. Should you get an acoustic or electric guitar? Electric guitars are a bit easier to play than acoustics, but you also need an amplifier and cables. The type of music you like should be a deciding factor, too. If you prefer folk and singer-songwriter tunes, acoustic is the way to go. If you like rock, jazz or blues, stick with an electric.

Ukulele: It’s inexpensive, fun and easy to learn. Originating from Hawaii, the ukulele is similar to an acoustic guitar, but with two less strings and a much different tone. It’s also an incredibly compact instrument, which makes it convenient for storage and travel. Many of the fundamental skills you learn on the ukulele transfer over to guitar, so if you decide to strap on a six-string down the road, you’ll be ahead of the curve.

Harmonica: Whether you’re playing blues, country or folk, it’s hard to sound bad on harmonica. The reason why is because harmonicas are built and sold in specific keys. If you’re interested in picking up the harmonica, get the key of C harmonica first because many beginner songs are in that key. It also doesn’t hurt that this portable instrument fits nicely into your pocket.

Bongos: Does rhythm entice you more than keys and chords? Do you tend to fidget or tap your fingers on tables a lot? The bongos might be the perfect instrument for you. They’re compact, inexpensive and nowhere near as loud and impractical as a full drum kit. Plus, the bongos are a fun toy for your grandchildren to play with when they come to visit.

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