Exploring the Undeniable Non-Musical Benefits of Learning to Play the Violin

February 25, 2021, 2:01 PM · The best thing about learning to play the violin - or any other musical instrument - is that after all those lessons and practice, you can play the violin! But that long learning process also confers undeniable benefits in other areas of life. It's important to acknowledge and sing the praises of those benefits, too, especially in a time where instrumental music education is routinely dismissed as an "extra."

learning violin
Photo by Ashkan Forouzani.

No other activity offers the union of skills and disciplines that instrumental music does, requiring physical coordination, communication, math, discipline, memory and more. In fact, scientific studies have shown that playing an instrument literally "engages every major part of the central nervous system," using both the right and left sides of the brain.

Here are a few of the specific ways that learning an instrument can affect one's overall abilities and life perspective.

Tackling Difficult Problems, Step-by-Step

"That's too hard!" Learning a musical instrument presents a constant series of tasks that seem too difficult. Just producing a sound can be difficult - making something other than a scratch on a violin, blowing into a flute in a way that produces a pitch, or making any kind of sound at all with a French horn. And it just gets more difficult from there: fingerings, rhythms, pitch - impossible! And then, step-by-step, it becomes possible. The thing that was impossible in the beginning is laughably simple a year later - but then there is a new "impossible" challenge to master. Progress is slow and incremental.

It's helpful to be aware of that building process, and the way it can apply to other seemingly insurmountable problems in life. With time, patience, practice, persistence, the "impossible" IS possible.

Complex Counting

Music is mathematics in motion, simply put. A precise number of notes must fit into a precise amount of time, and often it's a very complicated equation. If that weren't enough, we then layer those notes: the violin's notes fit with the notes of a piano, or the notes of another violin. Or we put dozens of instruments together, all playing their own set of notes that must synchronize in perfect time with the whole. The counting, subdividing and fitting your notes with other notes -- is constant.

Learning to juggle these equations in real-time sharpens the mind and make it a bit more nimble, when quick mathematical assessments come up in other life situations.

Physical Coordination

No question: an instrumental musician is a small-muscle athlete. This is true for any instrument, but I'll talk about the violin, which certainly requires a high level of coordination. One must hold the instrument on the shoulder, place the fingers on the fingerboard, shift with precision, cultivate a vibrato motion, produce tone with a variety of bow strokes -- and then get the balance of all of it "just-so."

The learning curve for certain motions can sometimes appear to bend entirely uphill. The first time someone tries vibrato, or certain wrist motions in bowing, or a complicated double-stop finger placement - the motion is elusive. With work, there is finally an "AHA!" moment -- then a second later it might be lost entirely. One has to get the message from brain to fingers or wrist, and at first, it takes a long time. It can feel like the opposite of being coordinated. But then with practice and persistence, that message between brain and fingers grows stronger and faster. The coordination comes, and it stays. It might get rusty with disuse, but it's much easier to get it back than to learn it in the first place. And all those learned motions create a generally higher level of small-muscle coordination in students of instrumental music.

Another Language to Read and "Speak"

It's amazing that a group of musicians can sit down together, and with the help of written music, they can accurately and convincingly play something they've never heard before. And in fact, every musician in the group might have different notes written on that music, but it all coordinates perfectly. Of course, the quality of the music produced on this first-read depends on whether this group is comprised of beginning high school orchestra students or professional musicians, but the organizing factor remains the same: a common language of written music.

Learning to read music is a little like learning a foreign language, but it's also simply its own skill. One must learn the concepts, conventions and specific symbols of music, such as: pitches in various clefs, note values, intervals, measures, time signatures, key signatures, scales, modes, dynamics, articulations and more.

After you learn all that, your leader might throw on another layer, "We're swinging this" - and you suddenly need to know, for example, that today the straight rhythms are going go a little asymmetric. So there is also the equivalent of local accents and colloquialisms in this language.

As with learning a foreign language, learning to read music - and exercising that knowledge - opens one's mind to different thought patterns and ways of organizing ideas.

Non-verbal Communication

When playing music, there is so much one can "say" without words. Music can feel expansive, busy, still, stressful, happy, sad, murky, clear -- it gets across these feelings, moods and emotions directly through sound and gesture. It just adds one more way that a human being can effectively express complicated feelings.

Discipline and Devotion

Generally, learning an instrument is a long-term project. When it comes to the violin, an average student doesn't really start "sounding good" until about five years of consistent practice and progress. In order to reach that point, a person has to develop a devotion to practicing as well as the courage to keep pushing the boundaries and exploring unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory. That habit of perseverance and discipline can serve many areas of life.

Listening

Learning music trains one to hear more, and it can make a person more curious about the sounds around them. A student of music hears the doorbell - but he or she may also be able to identify the pitch of the doorbell. They hear the song on the radio and may also figure out its time signature, or its key signature. What is cool about that pop song? Maybe it's the chord progression, or the fact that it's in 6/8 - but a musician can identify it. What kind of bird is that? It definitely has its own song. Musicians tend to have "good accents' when they learn languages other than their own, because they hear the subtleties in spoken language. Studying music cultivates a sensitivity toward sound, and the meaning behind it.

* * *

In what ways has learning music benefited your life? Has it enhanced your skills in non-musical areas? I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments.

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Replies

February 25, 2021 at 10:47 PM · Laurie: Great discussion of the many positive aspects of learning the violin at a young age. I would add two more, both having a strong interpersonal component:

1. Emotional expression. As you indicated above, one learns early not only to recognize and experience the emotions inherent in the music, but also also to express those emotions to others. The indirect interpersonal advantages of this can be profound.

2. Teamwork. Not only the aspects of learning a "solo" instrument, but also experiencing playing that instrument as part of a "team" (such as a chamber group or orchestra, even if it is a piano accompanist). There are many teamwork lessons one learns (often indirectly) in playing any musical instrument, but especially one like the violin.

February 26, 2021 at 09:53 PM · Laurie, I truly appreciated this article! Thank you! I once wrote about "looking backward" on how my early violin training impacted my professional business career. My four key areas were:

1. Musical training encourages the development of strong opinions, and oftentimes, the subjugation of those opinions.

2. The curtain will go up, even if you’re not ready.

3. Collaboration in music is not only encouraged, but also required.

4. Learning to do something well is its own reward.

February 26, 2021 at 11:31 PM · Great additions, Sander and Diana!

February 27, 2021 at 02:01 AM · Your first sentence reminded me of something;-

Why did Heifetz keep practicing every day even after being completely retired, with no performances or recordings on the calendar ?

--Because he could hear Heifetz play, for free, any time, any piece he wanted.

February 27, 2021 at 02:06 PM · Joel:

I remember a quote I read about Heifetz decades ago. He was asked if he had to practice every day. He replied: "Yes. If I don't practice for ONE day, I can hear the difference. If I don't practice for TWO days, the orchestra can hear the difference. If I don't practice for THREE days, the audience can hear the difference. And if I don't practice for FOUR days, the critics can hear the difference."

Have a great day.

Cheers,

Sandy

February 27, 2021 at 06:08 PM · It's true that studying a musical instrument does offer all these different challenges all at once. But I feel sometimes that there's a tendency for parents of young musicians to feel a little smug about that. We have to remember that musical instruction is also very expensive, not to mention the cost of owning or renting a playable instrument. A child can enoy soccer, paint or draw, and study chess for next to nothing. That's why I feel these latter activities are better for our public schools.

February 28, 2021 at 07:35 AM · I started playing violin at my public school, so I support the idea of robust support for instrumental music education in all schools. It certainly helps communities to foster cooperation, communication etc etc in their young people by offering this education to as many as possible.

February 28, 2021 at 03:34 PM · I agree.

March 1, 2021 at 02:52 AM · I understand that warm sentiment, and it's a beautiful vision that you have.

I live in Virginia, where presently a war is being waged in the statehouse because the means of funding public schools still bears the cruel vestiges of segregation. A Republican state senator recently proposed an amendment to the Virginia Constitution that would require the General Assembly to ensure that "all children of school age are provided with equitable educational opportunities and shall provide for the apportionment of the cost of such program between the Commonwealth and the local units."

The issue is that schools in far southwestern Virginia (coal country) are falling apart. The roofs leak. There's mold growing everywhere.

Democrats, who control both houses for the first time in a long time, killed the bill in committee because (1) it's entirely unfunded (typical of bills submitted by Republicans who have signed Grover Norquist's "no new taxes" pledge), (2) it's vague (what does "equitable" mean?), (3) we already have a formula that sends much larger funds per student to the poorest districts, (4) they're exploring options to re-graduate the state income tax.

But the wealth gap in this country just keeps getting worse. In Loudoun County (near DC) the mean household income is $143,000. In Scott County (near Tennessee) it's less than $40,000. These are averages!! Folks in coal country cannot simply pay more property tax. For many families, their home/property is their only significant asset, and they have very little income if any. These are districts that can barely keep the lights on in their schools to teach math. More than half of their students are eligible for free lunches. Usually if there's a music class in those kinds of districts, students rotate into it for a few hours a week to sing songs and play the occasional percussion instrument.

March 1, 2021 at 04:23 AM · Given what a musical education does for musical comprehension and appreciation, why do we have to look elsewhere for benefits?

Do we have to look for other benefits to beauty? Love? Truth?

March 1, 2021 at 04:03 PM · J Ray, because it's expensive, that's why. Laurie lives in Pasadena. She's going to be painfully aware that Los Angeles County Unified School District has nearly 700,000 students, which means providing them with stringed instruments including maintenance, storage, accessories (shoulder rests and rosin!) not to mention paying the teachers will be entirely prohibitive. "Musical comprehension and appreciation" isn't going to sway a school board that is already facing the problem that a significant fraction of its students don't have anything to eat at home. In Los Angeles, the school cafeterias serve more meals than all of the McDonalds franchises in the whole city (73 locations). Showing administrators that kids who learn the violin do better on their math assessments, or score higher on the SAT, or enjoy higher graduation rates might move the needle. The problem is that you need the program before you can collect the data, because it's too easy to claim that small-scale studies don't apply to a monster system like LA Unified. So it's a catch-22 situation. That's why private funding is critical to something like this. Violin-playing will just never register as a priority in a school district like LA County Unified. I would estimate that an endowment of $500,000,000 would get the boll rolling.

March 4, 2021 at 03:34 AM · Paul, it seems that you're missing the point of value of music in itself, which of course, I don't really believe you do. Justifying music with money, or academic success for other fields, mathematics, etc., while it's commonly done and rational to some degree - even to the extent that supporters of other arts education sometimes complain that music thereby gets the bulk of the attention and funding - misses the point that art needs to be able to stand up for itself, as a higher expression of humanity with its own value. We, and our society as a whole would be and is immensely poorer without vibrant culture and arts, including music, but certainly not limited to it, and certainly not limited to classical string music as preferred vehicles for most.

March 4, 2021 at 05:34 AM · Yes, my children attended Title 1 schools so I'm very aware of the needs. I taught violin at various programs at those schools as well, and the kids benefited greatly from having music in their lives at an early age. It takes a lot of creativity to find the funding, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't try. The school lunch program ran simultaneously, and music did not take away funding from that.

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