I recently celebrated a personal milestone: My first full year of learning guitar. It’s something I’ve tried to do before. In the past, I always got frustrated and gave up. That’s because I played piano as a kid, and – for me – it was always easier to find notes laid out on the 88-keys of a piano, than on the 6-strings of a guitar. Plus, piano never gave my fingers calluses!
But this time around, I didn’t give up. I stuck with my lessons, practiced, and got comfortable enough playing guitar that my sister recently asked me: “What’s the deal? Are you trying to be a rock star or something?”
Honestly, I have no delusions of ever going that far with it. The reason I decided to go gung-ho with guitar is because of all the science I’ve read here at work about learning a musical instrument. For example, studies show that it can sharpen our focus, and boost memory. Plus, memorizing all those finger movements helps strengthen connections in the problem-solving part of the brain, which, according to the University of Toronto, helps make us smarter!
Then there’s this thing called “brain plasticity.” That’s the term scientists use for our brain’s amazing ability to grow, change, and adapt over time. Until recently, scientists thought the brain stopped growing new cells by the time we turned 30. But now, we know that it’s constantly forming new cells as long as we’re alive! And, it turns out, one of the best ways to increase brain plasticity is to learn a new skill, like playing guitar.
Plasticity is the reason I can play a song one day, and be terrible at it. Then, I come back a few days later to find the part I once thought was impossible, is now a little easier to play. It’s because plasticity is clearing out old brain cells, and reinforcing the connections that help me play better.
Am I good enough to jump onstage? Hardly. In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell says we need to devote at least 10,000 hours to something before we can achieve true mastery. And so far, I’m only about 400 hours into mastering guitar. But if I get nothing else out of all this, I’m comforted by the fact that brain stimulation,in any form, is proven to help us prevent neurological disorders, including Alheimer’s! That’s a good enough reason for me to keep practicing plasticity.