Studies have long shown that playing music or participating in some other creative or artistic activity improves intelligence and sharpens cognitive function. But a lesser-known truth is that doing one creative activity can stimulate imagination in other creative fields. In particular, a musical practice—especially an interdisciplinary and improvisatory instrument like the piano—has the power to shape our approach to the rest of the arts and humanities. Here’s our take on the salutary effects of musical engagement on anyone’s creative sensibility.
It gets you thinking on your feet.
Whether you study music in an academic context, participate in an extracurricular activity, or simply play for your own fun and personal edification, you are honing skills associated with momentary action and engaging in the present. You learn what works and what doesn’t, what sounds good and what you would prefer to change, and adapt accordingly. This sort of amenability will be particularly important for the group collaborations in your life: instantaneous adapting will serve you well in any context where there are many voices vying to be heard. You can even take it a step further by participating in group musical ventures like bands or choirs—playing with fellow musicians necessitates mutual listening and cooperation, skills that will get you far in all manner of relationships.
It helps you to think with greater precision.
All music is mathematical, and the piano provides one of the simplest forms of connecting with that numerical nature. Familiarizing yourself with the keys automatically familiarizes you with intervals, the distance between notes, and the chords they form when stacked on top of one another. A simple half-step from one note to the next can create an entirely new chord; it can determine the difference between a minor one and a major one, or between a pleasant-sounding one and a dissonant one. As your ear improves, you’ll be better able to pinpoint these differences and learn not only whether you are playing a piece of music correctly but where you may have made errors. This habit of getting each note and chord precisely in its place transfers easily to strokes of a paintbrush or lead pencil (differences in shading, for example, can be just as subtle as differences between notes), diction in creative writing, and more. It will have you striving for perfection in all your projects.
It frees you up to experiment.
One of the best features of the piano, as mentioned above, is the ability to create full chords and chord progressions on a single instrument, as opposed to many other types of instruments which can only accommodate one note at a time. This puts you at liberty to invent your own sequences of notes and chords, compose melodies and harmonies, and express yourself through musical creation. You can also improvise variations on existing pieces of music, reimagining compositions from any time period and interpreting them with your own performative personality. The more often you do this, the more confident you’ll become in your musical abilities, and the more comfortable you’ll feel straying from convention in your artistic practices as you follow your own voice. (Incidentally, this also goes especially for visual art and writing!)
It aids your discovery of art that you might not otherwise have given a second thought to.
Given the long history of fine art all over the world, it can sometimes feel academic, stuffy, and formal, removed from our own experience and irrelevant to everyday contemporary life. But this great variety also provides greater odds of your coming upon something you connect with. Finding genres and schools of music that speak to you will make you more excited to listen to it, learn it, and engage with it—and you might well be surprised by some of the compositions or artists that become near and dear to you over time. Drawing inspiration from them will subsequently inform your own creations, reinvigorating the ideas of their time for our current era.
It improves muscle memory.
Among other benefits of piano playing, your body learns more from a regular musical practice than is immediately apparent. You develop memory in the muscles and joints you use most often (in the case of the piano these would be in your fingers), which will help you to retain the information in compositions you have studied. When you practice enough, you will be surprised at how much time can pass without your forgetting how to play something you learned long ago. You’ll trust your body when you witness its reflexive memory in action.
It improves the rest of your memory too.
Musical study has been linked to sharper mental acuity and memory retention. Over the course of your practice, you’ll be crafting a mind that’s up to the task of recalling the minutiae of all the compositions you’re learning—making them that much easier (and more fun) to play! And, of course, a better memory allows you to effortlessly refer to the things you’ve learned in your musical work when faced with other tasks to perform or problems to solve.
It actually alters your cerebral makeup.
Another phenomenon we’ve documented in the past (see the above article) is that the physical composition of the brain begins to show signs of change after five months of musical practice. The components of your work that cause you frustration at first or do not come naturally will become easier as time goes on, because your brain is literally becoming more musical! Not bad for tinkering around on a set of keys a few times a week.
We could go on all day about the ways in which frequent engagement with a piano or other musical instrument can enrich your other hobbies and thereby your life. But don’t take our word for it—find a keyboard near you and see for yourself!
Cecilia Gigliotti is a writer, musician, and photographer. Having spent her childhood singing and performing, she took an additional interest in the piano as a teenager and grows more passionate about it with each passing year. She lives in Berlin with a ukulele called Uke Skywalker: she can be found covering her favorite songs on YouTube (Lia Lio) and writing about music elsewhere on the Internet.
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