Am I Too Old to Learn Music?
The short answer is…
If you’re reading this article, you might be an adult who’s interested in learning an instrument, but have fears that you’re too old. We’re often told that music is something best learned as a child and that adults have a much harder time mastering an instrument.
What we’ve been told isn’t very far off the mark. Children typically do learn faster than adults. They are capable of amazing feats. Videos of five year olds rocking out to System of a Down’s “Toxicity” (see video below) or playing lengthy sonatas are aplenty on Youtube. What might take them two days to master may take us two weeks !
Don’t let that stop you though! Contrary to what we might believe, we adults are still oozing with potential. In fact, we have some advantages in learning music as adults that children may not enjoy (along with a whole slew of benefits). Furthermore, mastery ultimately boils down to diligence and resilience, rather than the age you started playing the instrument. With a desire to learn, the capacity to understand abstract musical concepts and the proper attitude to stay focused in spite of difficulties, you can learn to play a new instrument no matter your age. If you’re still sceptical, this article offers three compelling reasons why you should embark on your musical journey today.
Reason 1: Your adult brain is more than capable of learning an instrument.
The fact that children usually have it easier does not mean that adults are unable to learn music, we just have to use different methods to learn music. To understand this better, let’s examine how the brains of children and adults work differently.
An adult’s brain is like a city that’s already extensively developed, while a child’s is much like a city that’s sparsely built. To play music, we have to use both sides of our brain to simultaneously control various body parts. No one is immediately able to do this, no matter what their age is. Much like building new roads in a city, adults and children will have to establish new neural networks and connections to develop deft control of their body to play music. Children tend to learn quicker as they are free to build these new roads in any way they want, while adults have to plan carefully to build roads around the existing infrastructure.
Similar to how a developed city can have new roads built with careful planning, adults can still learn music, when the learning is structured. Think of music like it’s a language; instead of learning the language organically (and haphazardly) through daily experience, adults tend to learn better by first understanding the grammar rules. Taking music theory lessons may help us adults with learning our instruments with our increased understanding of the rules of music.
In any case, neurological research suggests that the brain remains capable of changing (neuroplastic) for life, which entails that age is no boundary to our music ambitions. Therefore, you shouldn’t worry too much about your brain being suboptimal, because it’s more than enough! Instead, you should be concerned with what really matters- your sheer hard work and resilience. In fact, we adults often fare better here as we have the maturity to be disciplined and patient.
Reason 2: Your maturity gives you some advantages over children in understanding music.
The increased maturity of an adult also comes with greater capacity to understand emotions. With our extensive and varied life experiences, we tend to be able to empathize with songwriters and composers more easily than children would. The complex, bittersweet feelings of love and loss expressed by Slash’s guitar solo in Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain” or the image of calm and serenity in Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” come more easily to an adult than a child. As such, adults, who are better equipped to appreciate the emotional context of music, usually play with more authentic expression than children.
Adults have the advantage of having listened to more music in their lifetime as well. It’s no coincidence that we find many pop songs sounding similar; they frequently follow common chord progressions (see video below) and have motifs that are tried, tested, and proven. Our knowledge of these common chord progressions and motifs can aid sight reading and improvisation as we can predict how the melodies and harmonies in a piece will resolve themselves.