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Playing an Instrument: Better for Your Brain than Just Listening

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While research has long suggested listening to an orchestra’s performance of such well-known pieces as Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro may boost the audience’s brain power – a hypothesis aptly named The Mozart Effect—Penn Medicine experts suggest those playing in the orchestra may derive the most benefits of all.

This past holiday season, those positive effects hit close to home, as the Penn Medicine orchestra, comprised primarily of students from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and clinicians from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, performed its first concert.

Playing an instrument may be one of the best ways to help keep the brain healthy. “It engages every major part of the central nervous system,” said John Dani, PhD, chair of Neuroscience at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, tapping into both the right and left sides of the brain.  For example, playing the violin – which, like many instruments, requires the right hand to do something different than the left--  uses the peripheral nervous system, which controls movement of your fingers, as well as gross and fine motor skills. The brain’s executive function – which plans and makes decisions – comes into play as a musician plays one part but keeps focus on what’s coming next.  Couple that with the total sensory input – visual, auditory, emotional and all at the same time – and it becomes a total “workout” for the brain. “Recent studies suggest that music may be a uniquely good form of exercising your brain,” he said. “Fun can also be good for you.”

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And the best news: 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 loss of memory and cognitive function. Results from a study of people who started to play piano between the ages of 60 and 85 noted that “after six months, those who had received piano lessons showed more robust gains in memory, verbal fluency, the speed at which they processed information, planning ability, and other cognitive functions, as compared with those who had not received lessons.” So it’s never too late.

Of course, playing an instrument brings immediate benefits as well. Dorothy Kliniewski, a nurse at HUP who plays the violin, called the numerous rehearsals leading up to the concert “the highlight of my day.  It’s a huge stress reliever… and it’s fun!”

Jose Pascual, MD, a surgeon in the Trauma Center at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, said, “It allows me to pull out of the sometimes psychologically and physically draining day-to-day caring and witnessing of injured patients, particularly those suffering tragic events such as death by gun violence.”  Plus, it provides “the opportunity to produce beautiful art with my [14-year-old] son, Mateo,” who also plays in the orchestra. His son agreed: “It helps bring us closer.”

Gina Chang, a second year PSOM student, started the orchestra last spring with fellow student Dan Zhang. Both had to cut back on their music considerably since starting medical school. “When we discussed the possibility of starting an orchestra, we realized how much we missed playing and [in his case], conducting,” she said. And they clearly weren’t alone. More than 40 Penn doctors, nurses, and grad students answered their call to participate, squeezing out time from their overloaded schedules for something they loved … and missed.

“We were amazed by and grateful for the musicians’ enthusiasm, engagement, and dedication,” Chang said. “The orchestra is proof that music can and should remain a part of us,” no matter where their lives take them.

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