Which is better – learning one instrument or many?

Music programs often grapple with a big question: should we give our students a variety of experiences learning different instruments, or should we get them to focus on learning and eventually mastering just one instrument?

As almost always, the answer isn’t straightforward. In early childhood (between the ages of 0-5), providing opportunities for young children to play rhythms with a variety of percussion instruments such as djembes, claves, or tambourines, and melodies on xylophones or chime bars, is a great cognitive challenge. The ability to manipulate beat and pitch on different instruments encourages the young brain to adapt the connections between the auditory, visual, and motor cortices.

In the early years of school, music learning across different types of instruments such as violin, keyboard, ukulele, and recorder can have the same impact as in early childhood. The difference is that music learning between the ages of 5-9 supports inhibitory control, social communication, language development, and neural connectivity.

However, there comes a time when the brain needs to move from adaptability to mastery. This begins to happen after the age of 10 when many students select an instrument they want to focus on and master. This shift encourages problem-solving, divergent, and creative thinking. Instead of adapting to a new instrument, students need to solve the problems that come with progressing in their mastery of the same instrument. This approach enhances the structures and functions of the brain, allowing it to grow into its full potential.

But learning music in adulthood has an entirely different benefit for the brain. Interestingly, as we age, our brain needs the same challenge we needed in our very early years – to be constantly exposed to new challenges. In Dr. Lawrence Katz’s book, “Keep Your Brain Alive,” he suggests that you should not stick with one instrument but constantly teach yourself to play unfamiliar instruments, exposing your brain to constant novelty.

Music learning has a purpose at every point in our human lives. It can grow, challenge, and protect our brains. Music is life!

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