Playing an instrument can be a great life skill to develop

“If there’s any object in human experience that’s a precedent for what a computer should be like, it’s a musical instrument: a device where you can explore a huge range of possibilities through an interface that connects your mind and your body, allowing you to be emotionally authentic and expressive.” —Jaron Lanier

For many years I have had the pleasure to work (and play) with musicians and producers in more genres than I can recall.  Like many others, I am constantly inspired by how computers have evolved as primary tools for music creation.  Imagine the world before soft-synths, sequencers and plug-ins?  The explosive rise of electronic music and its full integration into mainstream music is an obvious, clear result of the wide adoption of these complex yet affordable tools.

Now we can use astoundingly fully featured synths, DAWs and even mastering tools on our smart phones and tablets.  You can hear them in many live performances, from lavish stadium shows to flamboyant street shows. The development of DAWs have effectively democratized music creation allowing producers to unlock infinite musical possibilities. However there are many proven benefits in learning and gaining a working knowledge (or even expertise) with a ‘real’ musical instrument.  Here are a few well-known examples from the EDM world:

Disclosure: Guy is a drummer, and Howard is an accomplished bassist

Squarepusher: bass virtuoso

Mathew Jonson: jazz pianist

Gria: saxophonist

BT (Brian Transeau): classical piano, guitar, bass and more

Empire of the Sun: Littlemore plays keys, Steele plays guitar

In over a decade of mentoring and instruction, a large majority of my production and engineering students either didn’t play an instrument or possessed only novice level skills, perhaps those of a campfire guitarist or a one-handed piano player.  Here are a number of reasons to inspire you to not only pick up an instrument, but to learn how to play it to intermediate or even advanced levels.

1. It Sharpens Concentration and Memory

Many studies with school age children have shown that students who receive a musical education often do better academically.  In their research paper titled ‘Music Training Causes Long-Term Enhancement Of Preschool Children’s Spatial-Temporal Reasoning’, Shaw, Rauscher, Levine, Wright, Dennis and Newcomb state that “music training is far superior to computer instruction in dramatically enhancing children’s abstract reasoning skills, the skills necessary for learning math and science.”

2. It Enhances Perseverance, Discipline and Coordination

Learning an instrument, like producing any music or art, requires daily dedication and practice.  Comparisons can be drawn to exercise or yoga – if you do it every day you will improve, but if you only do it every week you can be prone to injury.  Okay, you won’t get injured if you only play piano once a week, but it won’t allow you to develop the muscle memory, coordination or finger independence needed to progress.  Every instrument requires some sort of physical development, whether it’s muscles in the hand or building a solid embouchure for woodwind or brass instruments, and daily practice will be essential in developing this.

3. It’s a Step into History and Culture

The guitar is over 800 years old, although precursors to it have existed since the Hittites over 3300 years ago.  The violin was developed in 1564, and the piano, developed from a long lineage of similar instruments was developed to its modern form between 1790-1860.  However, if you play any kind of flute, you’re walking back in time by about 40,000 years.  Even the voltage-controlled synthesizer was invented in 1963, much earlier than most of our clients were born.  Synthesizers can be traced back to 1876 with Elisha Gray’s invention of the Musical Telegraph.  Learning an instrument includes you in rich tradition of music shared by humankind for millennia, which will continue on for hopefully many more.  There’s something magical about creating music from wood, metal, horsehair, gourds (such as the African Kora) or even vegetables  Never underestimate the novelty value of hearing unique and even ancient sounds in your music.

4. To Find Your Musical Voice

It should not be understated that perhaps the most versatile and expressive instrument is your own singing voice. Unless you’re tone deaf (which is rare for anyone pursuing music), your voice can be honed and conditioned to express the ‘soul’ of your creativity perhaps better than any other instrument. For daily warm-ups, check out Seth Riggs vocal exercises, or find a local vocal coach to help you ‘find your voice’.  I’d recommend at least 4 vocal lessons for any musician, whether you plan on fronting a band or not.  Did you know that Michael Jackson did vocal training with his coach Seth Riggs up until his last tour, often calling from hotel rooms for his sessions?  Do some vocal exercises with Michael here:

5. New Creative Ideas

The formula for new creative ideas is often simple: new medium, new ideas.  How many musicians do you know of that changed musical styles based on learning new instruments or musical styles?  One easy example is The Beatles.  In their early records, they sound like a standard rock band with drums, guitars, bass and vocals.  If you listen to their later work you can hear Indian instruments, brass and string sections, synthesizers, tape loops and a number of interesting studio techniques that are widely used today.  Did you know that early synth composers didn’t receive royalties for their work because the sounds they made weren’t considered ‘music’?  It’s hard to believe considering how ubiquitous these sounds are now.  There are many more examples, but if you’ve ever had new ideas by acquiring a new synthesizer or plug-in, imagine what learning a new instrument will do for your composing.

Click below to see the trailer for the documentary ‘What The Future Sounded Like’, a must-see for any synth-head.

6. It Relieves Stress

Studies have long shown that playing an instrument will lower heart rate and blood pressure, lowering the stress hormone Cortisol, creating more relaxation.  Musicians, if you’ve noticed, are on the most part very relaxed people when they are playing.  A daily practice routine is a daily stress reliever, and can keep people away from excessive eating, binge watching shows or aimless web browsing.

7. To Increase Interest From Your Fans and Listeners

As EDM music is seeing a stratospheric growth in popularity worldwide, producers with a good knowledge of music theory and even basic performance skills at a real instrument can increase interest in your music from listeners.  When you learn the techniques of a given instrument, you’re often learning music that has been played by others in the past, in whatever style or genre you’re focused on.  You often learn how to ‘play within the box’ of the instrument, which in itself will give you new ideas and enhance your own creativity.  If you play keyboards and learn to play the guitar, new ideas will emerge.  If you decide to play saxophone or violin, inevitably even playing the standard classics on those instruments will be exotic and creatively expansive.

8. You Can Jam! Expand your Social Circle and Build Community

Every time you jam with musicians, not only will you feel connected with other creative personalities, but new ideas are guaranteed to emerge.  Many bands have written and developed their best music in jam sessions, from The Beatles to Dream Theater to King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.  Music is an experience best shared, and collaborating with others will not only bring out some of your best work, but you’ll progress by leaps and bounds.  Also, being in a band or regular jam circle also gives you a regular deadline (weekly/monthly) to practice and improve.  The reason I became a professional musician was because I practiced weekly with a band from the age of 14, and each week I aimed to play and create parts better than the week before.   Many small clubs, coffee shops and other venues in your local community will have open mic nights, which include jam sessions.  Find out where they are and go this week!

9. Avoid Dementia

Although this might be speculation, it has been found that learning a musical instrument can stave off the symptoms of dementia, similar to the effects of learning a new language, dancing, reading or writing.  If you want to keep your mind sharp and remain coherent throughout your life, learning an instrument is a good way to go about it.

10. Register for the ‘Infinite Kindergarten’

Remember that music is ‘played’, and play is always fun.  It’s a concept I call the ‘Infinite Kindergarten’, or the idea that we should always be learning a new skill and risk being a complete novice at something.  We’ve all seen virtuosos and wunderkinds of all types on YouTube – guitarists faster and younger than your favourite rock star, drummers in their basement who rival Neil Peart or Billy Cobham, or splendid musical inventions like this guy playing a shovel.

This may discourage many novices from even starting to play, with the mindset of ‘why play at all…I’ll never be that good?’  Well, I’ll never be able to master a hula-hoop like they do at Cirque du Soleil, but it’s still a lot of fun to try!  It is possible that you may even innovate an instrument with a new approach (like the invention of Detroit Techno by the new use of the Roland TB303).  Many famous songs were made by musical novices with simple yet great ideas.  Think of John Lennon’s piano on Imagine, Bob Dylan’s Harmonica or even Jack White and Kurt Cobain playing guitar. You’ll find that most popular songs only require slightly more than beginner skills to be able to play: try it!

Check out this TED Talk for further information on the benefits of playing an instrument.

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