Daniel Levitin, in This Is Your Brain On Music, asks “why is it that of the millions of people who take music lessons as children, relatively few continue to play music as adults?” He answers the question by describing the many people who say to him that
their music lessons “didn’t take.” I think they’re being too hard on themselves. The chasm between musical experts and everyday musicians that has grown so wide in our culture makes people feel discouraged, and for some reason this is uniquely so with music. Even though most of us can’t play basketball like Shaquille O’Neal, or cook like Julia Child, we can still enjoy a friendly backyard game of hoops, or cooking a holiday meal for our friends and family. This performance chasm does seem to be cultural, specific to contemporary Western society. And although many people say that music lessons didn’t take, cognitive neuroscientists have found otherwise in their laboratories. Even just a small exposure to music lessons as a child creates neural circuits for music processing that are enhanced and more efficient than for those who lack training. Music lessons teach us to listen better, and they accelerate our ability to discern structure and form in music, making it easier to us to tell what music we like and what we don’t like.
I’m glad to know that the many years of piano and cello lessons I had, and the excruciating (for me) experiences of annual piano recitals were not wasted. And I have come to realize that I can sing, just not very well, but good enough to benefit from the emotional value of music. Levitin writes that “music increases the production of dopamine . . . [and] is clearly a means for improving people’s moods.”