Can you still learn music as an adult?

Boukje van Gelder about adults who learn music

When we think of starting a musical instrument, we don't think of adults who learn to play music, we think of children taken to a music school to trying different instruments until they found one they like and their parents approve of. (My own very musical mother didn’t want me to play the harp for logistic reasons, so I happily switched to wanting to play cello.) Kids trying recorder, keyboard, drums and oboe. Happy with every instrument that can make a sound. It’s a beautiful way for many kids to start their musical adventure.

Still, there are so many of them that after some years stop or that never even started. And a lot of them grow up regretting the musical gap in their lives. Maybe this is something you recognize and, although you wish life had gone differently for you in this aspect, now surely it must be too late to start (back) music lessons? All the musicality you might have had or developed is lost now that you became so very old. You will just keep on admiring all those people that excel in music. But somewhere, you wish you’d taken up music lessons… 

Why don’t you start now?

Do you really think you can’t because you’re not anymore a child prodigy? If so, let me try to convince you that you can still start and that it’s not even weird. In this article, I will give you some insights on learning music that might change your mind. 

 

Firstly, I want to get rid of some myths about music-making and learning as an adult:

myth 1:

There are only those highly gifted musicians and those ones who are lost cases, like me.

While there are musicians that always had an extraordinary talent for music, there are also just as many great musicians who didn’t have special powers from the beginning, but simply worked really hard. In the end most of the people are musical in some way, only a very small percentage of the people lacks musicality. A far bigger percentage never trained their musicality. But it’s never too late to start on that.

Who you think aren't musical vs who aren't musical

Who you think aren't musical
Who aren't musical

Who you think are musical vs who are musical

Who you think are musical
Who are musical

myth 2:

I lack the creativity for being good at music

You-vs-artist
Creativity has the word ‘create’ in it. A creation can be anything from small to big. This makes that there are many ways to be creative: a baker who discovers a recipe that makes the bread even crispier, a plumber who finds the best way to solve leaks and the Nobel Prize winner in Medicine that got closer to curing an illness. All of them are creative and with all of them their creativity came from years of experience and (failed) experiments. There is no such thing as having a spark of creativity. There is just the practice of finding new solutions, giving your brain new connections to find even more different solutions. Creativity, in this sense, is looking for new things to do and ways to do them and this is something everybody can do.

myth 3:

Someone else can do it better anyway (“Never mind, I will never be the new Mozart.”), so why would I even start?

help-I-can't-learn-music
This seems to be a valid argument in not starting with music lessons, but when people talk about starting sports, they forget to mention that they will never be Usain Bolt or play in FC Barcelona. They put on their running shoes and go together with 50.000 other people to run the marathon of New York. They run very, very slowly, but they’re proud of their achievement. Then suddenly, not composing as well as Bach or singing as well as Beyoncé should be an argument to not do any music? Come on! You can at least train for the five kilometres of piano playing and be very proud.
don't-give-up-music

myth 4:

I will never be able to learn music, I’m not anymore 10 years old

This myth doesn’t only account for learning music. People in general think of learning ability as something linear like this:

learning-ability-adult
  1. “I feel I’m getting old, my cousin of 5 wins the game memory every time.”
  2. “Let’s leave this task to the new trainee, her brain is still flexible.”
  3. “I can’t get this computer to work, but that’s normal because I’m already 60.”
  4. “I’m too old for al these fast changes, let’s leave it.”
Now I’m still before stage two so I don’t have experience in how it feels to get older. But I’ve worked a lot in customer service and there I heard people of 45 say they’re old tarts because they forget their passwords again. This story goes on until they’re 80+ and still they’ll never learn to remember their passwords. The truth is that most of them just don’t want to remember their password. They don’t want to spend the time in learning it. Apart from illnesses that make you forget things; age has little to do with it. Dr Josh Turknett says this about it: “Your brain is not going to change in response to something or form a memory, unless you’ve played close attention to it. Attention is how you signal your brain that something is important enough to change.” He also says our brain stays flexible throughout our lives and is capable of learning new skills and behaviours. (Josh Turknett, 9 ways to practice smarter) So actually you’re still able to learn new things even though you’re not learning in the same way as when you were a kid. This combined with our inborn musical ability makes that we can learn playing a musical instrument or singing on a level that’s both fun and challenging.

The question is: do you want it? Is it worth your attention?

And if you want it, are you now convinced that you also can do it? If not, let me give you five advantages of learning music as an adult:

  1. You choose to be there. There is no parent forcing you to take lessons or choosing one type of instrument, so you have intrinsic motivation.
  2. You’re more intelligent than when you were a child. Your brain already has more connections to make new ones from.
  3. You have a way better focus than when you were a child.
  4. You have clearer ideas on what you would like to learn.
  5. You maybe have less time, but because of your grown-up brain, you’re more efficient in your learning.

Adults who still learn music: too good to be true?

Maybe you think: “This is all great, it sounds too good to be true, there must be something that she doesn’t tell”. My reply to this is that for sure there are also disadvantages to starting a musical instrument as an adult. Let me include them here:

  1. Adults have busy lives and many more things to worry about then children and therefore less time for music lessons and practising. Of course, this changes with retirement.
  2. The muscles of adults tend to stiff over time that makes it harder to use the flexibility that’s needed for playing an instrument or singing. This process can be slowed down by training, but not stopped.
  3. Adults have a lower expectation of themselves, they think they can’t be musical and they tend to be more scared of failing and making mistakes.

Learn music and have some fun!

I hope that by now I’ve convinced you that you can actually take music lessons as an adult and that you can learn something in them. If you think you don’t have the time, then read our 7 points for practising music more efficiently. If money is an issue for you, look for other cheaper options, like group lessons or singing in a choir or saving some money for starting one or two years later. As you now know, even after these one or two years it’s still worth it to start your music lessons.

To finish, I want to tell you that writing this article already gave me so many insights in how I can improve my teaching to adults and how I should not be afraid to learn and do new things myself. For example, I am a very unhandy person (that’s why I became a singer) and my piano playing was hard to improve. Now I know how I can fix it! Besides that, I made all the drawings of the posts myself, just by trying and failing them. I know they’re very simple and they’re not perfect, but I have fun in making them and they are clear. I want for you to have just as much fun in learning as I have in music or in every other part in life that interests you.

Sources for reading more:

Barry Green, The inner game of Music
Josh Turknett, 9 ways to practice smarter
Wieke Karsten, In de muziek
Susan Williams, Quality Practice
Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia

A very simple explanation on neuroplasticity
While being very distracted on Facebook, I found this genius illustration from Michelle Rial’s Am I Overthinking this? :

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