Do you hope to expand your musical circle? Need inspiration and practical ideas for overcoming setbacks? Love music and seek new ways to enjoy it? Roots musician Gayla M. Mills will help you take your next step, whether you play jazz, roots, classical, or rock. You'll become a better musician, learning the best ways to practice, improve your singing, enjoy playing with others, get gigs and record, and bring more music to your community. Most importantly, you'll discover how music can help you live and age well.
"A keen road map that supports musicians and the expansion of their craft. Gayla's done the work. All you have to do is step on the path and follow her lead." — Greg Papania, music producer, mixer, composer
"Gayla Mills shares the nuts and bolts of fostering one's hidden musical talent. But perhaps most importantly, she shares the power behind music. . . . anyone seeking to awaken their musical passion will find this book ideal." — Dr. Lynn Szostek, psychologist and gerontologist
"Making Music for Life absolutely fascinated me. It's beautifully written and engagingly constructed and it helped me better understand why music has remained central to my life. I found it entrancing." — Steve Yarbrough, author of The Unmade World and guitar player
"Gayla Mills' precision with language, delight with music, and intrinsic joie de vivre make her the perfect author for Making Music for Life. Everyone who has tapped a foot or hummed along with a band will love this book, and maybe, just maybe, make music a bigger part of their lives." — Charlotte Morgan, author of Protecting Elvis
"Gayla Mills shares the nuts and bolts of fostering one's hidden musical talent. But perhaps most importantly, she shares the power behind music. It boosts creativity and reduces stress. It strengthens social bonds, helping us find harmony while resonating with others. From amateur musician to Grammy-winning performer, anyone seeking to awaken their musical passion will find this book ideal." — Dr. Lynn Szostek, psychologist and gerontologist
"What better way to counteract boredom, stress, anxiety and even depression than playfully learning a new instrument, singing, jamming, or just learning to hear the pitch, rhythm and timbres of sounds around you. Gayla Mills, in her book, Making Music for Life, offers tips for learning to hear and live life like a musician, while boosting your dopamine and improving cognition at the same time." — Dr. Jodie Skillicorn, psychiatrist
"Gayla and I were part of a motley group of musicians who gathered monthly to play and sing. The years passed. My guitar strings rusted; my piano went out of tune. I felt remorse and sadness. But now I realize that I'm the perfect audience for this thoughtful, detailed book, and I'm very thankful she had the vision and heart to write it." — Liz Hodges, author and guitar/piano player
"Music can be a powerful part of your life even if it is not your livelihood and Gayla's book Making Music for Life is like a table setting for this magical, mystical, musical table setting of love." — Michael Johnathon, musician and WoodSongs Old-time Radio Hour producer
"As a scientist who frequently speaks about the benefits of music on the brain, I'm often asked: is it too late for me? Mills provides a highly readable and practical guide that democratizes music's promise." — Dr. Nina Kraus, Professor, Brainvolts Auditory Neuroscience Lab, Northwestern University
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Discover the Benefits
Playing music reminds us to take time for ourselves and our friends and to forget about the stress that surrounds us in our daily lives. Music makes everything better.
— JoAnn Pinkerton, mandolin player and gynecologist
Almost everyone knows the joy of listening to music, the way it can transport you to someplace glorious. Not everyone, though, tries to make music.
Maybe you were one of the lucky ones, and you caught the music bug as a kid. You loved performing during a recital or playing as a teen with your friends. The music was intense, and you could play for hours. Or you sang in a choir and joined your voice with others in an outpouring of song. But then adult life kicked in and crowded out music. You figured you could always come back to it. One day.
If not now, when?
There's never been a better time to play. Even as the population ages and awareness of the benefits of music spreads through popular media, musical organizations appealing to those in the second half of life have multiplied. Wherever you turn, you can find places to learn and play — whether you like classical, jazz, folk, bluegrass, swing, R&B, or rock.
Millions are making music for the sheer fun of it. It comes to shape their identities and dominate their thoughts and social lives. Online profile pictures reveal the latest festival they enjoyed, instrument they bought, jam they joined, or house concert they hosted or attended. Many devote hours (which turn to years) as their musical interests grow, volunteering as radio DJs, concert promoters, music teachers, or performers at hospitals and schools. They talk about the latest concert, band, or album they discovered. Their circle of friends seems to expand and deepen.
They are enjoying the wealth that music has to offer. After all, music is "probably the richest human emotional, sensorimotor, and cognitive experience" we have.
Music Deepens Emotions
I think playing music stimulates endorphins. When I leave a jam, I feel high.
— Teresa Cruise, mandolin player and retired nurse
Listening to or playing music turbocharges our emotions and our senses, serving as a great antidote to feeling uninspired or unchallenged. You can count on it to get rid of your blahs.
Some of my best memories come from powerful musical moments — when I heard Talking Heads play so intensely that I had to dance, when I cranked up "Stand By Me" so I could wallow in a broken heart, when I got into a groove jamming with guitar, dobro, and bass on a moonlit night in Tennessee, or when I performed with Gene at an outdoor amphitheater under towering oaks.
As I've learned how to play more musically and mesh with others, I've found a deep satisfaction. Maybe what I'm experiencing is flow.
Psychologists talk of flow as complete absorption in an activity — your energy is focused and you're completely immersed. Flow brings not only long-term satisfaction, but also improved health. One study of classical pianists considered how flow affected their bodies: as the musicians entered a flow state, their heart rates and blood pressure decreased and facial muscles relaxed. When you're in flow with your group, you're concentrated on the task, you have a sense of control, you lose self-consciousness, and your sense of time is transformed. Musicians also call it "being in the groove." Flow feels transformative, and people get hooked on it.
That may be the dopamine that's kicking in. According to neuroscientists, "music that people described as highly emotional engages the reward system deep in their brains." What's more, music bumps up our dopamine levels not only during peak musical moments, but even when we merely anticipate those moments or imagine a tune. When we're moved by a piece of music, they conclude, "there's little that we value more." It's no wonder that people call music addictive.
In addition to firing up our neurotransmitters, music also affects our emotions through "entrainment." In musical terms, entrainment is the synchronization of external rhythm, such as a drumbeat or guitar strum, to an internal rhythm, such as tapping your foot, dancing in time to music, or even the beating of your own heart. Much of our musical joy and excitement comes from synchronizing while listening or playing with others. Researchers say that movement synchronized to music makes people feel connected to their partners, serving as "a kind of social glue."
Spontaneous movement to a rhythmic beat is something we do naturally. We can see it even in infants and find it across cultures — it's critical to our musical enjoyment. But most of us don't connect tapping our feet at a concert with the intense emotions we feel or with our brains taking part in a complex neural dance. Yet tapping in time to music "involves a process of meter extraction so complicated that most computers cannot do it."
Though our deftness with rhythm continues through childhood and improves through midlife, it weakens with older age. But musical engagement improves our ability, which suggests that we can counteract natural rhythmic declines by expanding our musical experiences and maintaining our sense of rhythm through practice.
I've always been a compulsive foot tapper when I listen to music. But after I learned that entraining to a beat boosts mood, I thought I'd try consciously using it. At five-foot-two, with five-inch wrists, I want to keep my bones and muscles fit so I can thump my bass. Yet I have trouble staying motivated to lift weights because I find the exercises tedious. So one day I put on my earbuds and tried tapping my feet on each beat while pressing and releasing the weight every fourth beat. I naturally synchronized to the music and got caught up in the exercise. Now I feel pumped up during my weight workouts — and I know I'm maintaining my sense of rhythm even as I'm developing my awe-inspiring triceps.
Music does more than make us feel better on a good day — it can also lift us up on a bad one. Listening to or playing music can reduce anxiety and depression while improving our relationships. One study compared a group of seniors who took lessons playing the organ to a group who didn't and found a "marked decrease in anxiety, depression and loneliness" among the players. Country star Reba McEntire says that "for me, singing sad songs often has a way of healing a situation. It gets the hurt out in the open into the light, out of the darkness."
While I was exploring emotions and music, I spoke with Iraq War veteran Eric Haynes, who has suffered from a traumatic brain injury and PTSD. He told me that a day of intensive music therapy at the Boulder Crest Retreat Center cured his stutter. "We used songs to talk about our experiences in the military. These Special Forces guys — who'd been overseas rappelling down to save another person — were crying on my shoulder," says Eric. "The music opened up that hard part of our hearts to soften. In a matter of twelve hours, it transformed us."
How could listening to songs have had such a profound effect on these hardened warriors? Evolutionary theory offers one explanation. Belonging to a group once helped our species survive, while being excluded from the group meant you faced the lion alone and became his dinner. So the quest for belonging is a deep-rooted motivation that shapes much of what we do. Being in a group not only helps us synchronize our actions with each other, but also leads us to experience strong feelings when we're synchronized.
The joy we feel during the song, the game, or the battle is in our genes, our brains, our blood. The urge to unify courses through us and makes our hearts beat stronger — even beating in sync with our bandmates or choir. That desire to sing in unison, to confirm we belong to the group, is where much of our musical joy comes from. So when we're all singing the same song, playing the same game, fighting the same battle, we're stoked by that strong, life-affirming feeling that we belong.
Music Strengt hens Social Bonds
I can sit out playing on my front porch and people walking by can actually come up and join me. Music has opened up a whole new world.
— Diana Brake, bass player and retired teacher
The older I get, the more I've come to value other people. I like chatting with strangers in grocery store lines and in home improvement aisles. I like bonding with friends over coffee, joining relatives over laden tables, and sharing stories with other writers.
More than anything else, though, there's music. I've met scores of people who share my musical interests. We swap new songs, play at jams, meet up at camps, share a meal and music at each other's houses, laugh at musical jokes, attend concerts together, and support each other at gigs. I'm an introvert, and I need plenty of time to myself to recharge my batteries. But music has helped me appreciate the joy and value of connecting with other people, and it's expanded my world in ways I'd never imagined.
Others describe similar experiences — as they've aged, they've rediscovered how much it means to share their musical passion. "As I look at the large pool of friends I now have, they are all connected through music," says banjo player and copywriter Bob Meagher, whose zany picking style and good humor win over any crowd. "Without music, I would still be all alone in my room."
Psychologists say that being part of a group doesn't just feel good: it leads to better health and a longer, more satisfying life.
Kelly Trojan, a truck driver who spends hours alone each day singing to CDs on the road, says that playing music with her band is about more than sharing dinners, conversations, jams, and camping. "I have somewhere to belong, a social group, and some focus other than the daily humdrum. Having friends and singing harmony with them is pretty special," she says. "Music has given me so much."
Music Improves Memory and Thinking
Music exercises your brain, like learning a new language — it keeps you alive and vibrant, it staves off dementia. If you sit on your ass and do nothing but watch TV, you'll go stagnant.
— John Simmons, clawhammer banjo player and retired attorney
I used to love solving algebra problems. I actually enjoyed cramming for a history test, then writing from memory a ten-page essay that was chock-full of facts and analysis. I can still write an analytic piece — but filled with factual detail from memory? I can't recall exactly, but I think my brain used to work better.
I'm not alone — many people are concerned about losing memory and mental flexibility. But what to do about it? Most mental workouts activate only a few areas of the brain at a time. Some activities that once seemed promising — like playing brain games — have been shown to have little effect.
Music is different. Playing an instrument is a rich and complex experience that engages the entire brain. According to Daniel J. Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music, "music listening, performance, and composition engage nearly every area of the brain that we have so far identified, and involve nearly every neural subsystem." When you play, you're essentially taking your brain to the gym for a vigorous workout. Just as doing physical exercise improves physical health, playing music improves mental health — protecting your memory, verbal abilities, mental processing speed, attention, and more.
Music training truly helps your brain age better. One of the most striking results comes from a recent study using MRI scans to compare the "brain ages" of non-musicians, amateur musicians, and professionals. Surprisingly, those with the youngest brain ages were the amateur musicians. Not only does playing an instrument have an "age-decelerating effect on the brain," but it has a stronger effect "when it is not performed as a main profession, but as a leisure or extracurricular activity." Amateurs appear to get the benefits of brain training without some of the physical and mental stresses that full-time musicians deal with.
They're aware of these benefits too. I spoke with retired graphic designer David Bullen from the San Francisco Bay area, who took up bluegrass bass though he played rock in his younger days. Now he's jamming with some experienced players and enjoying the mental challenge. "When you're playing with people who are pretty darned good, it's kind of exciting to keep up with it," says David. "I've used every bit of mental energy that I have to do it." He's also found that he feels mentally sharper after his bass lessons, so one day he tried his own mental test. He was working on a crossword puzzle before his lesson, and when he returned home, he went back to his puzzle. "I was cooking on the puzzle, doing a lot better after the lesson than before" he says. "It was like all the synapses had connected during the lesson."
Others see how music can cultivate the mind. Landscape architect Michael Thilgen found his intensive desire to learn in his professional career starting to flag in his fifties, about the time his interest in the guitar and banjo took off. "Music coming along when it did helped me stay active in the area of learning. If it hadn't happened, I might have started on that downward trend that people sometimes do as they age," says Michael, "where they're not learning new things, they're not developing new skills, and they're not meeting new people. We know where that trend can go. It's not a healthy place."
Researchers have studied that "healthy place," and the ways that musical experience helps the brain perform some of its most important tasks, including "executive function" (working memory, cognitive flexibility, attention, and more). Musicians perform better than non-musicians on several mental tasks, including executive functioning. Neuropsychologists Strong and Mast conclude that "learning a musical instrument is an extremely difficult task that 'exercises' many different brain regions simultaneously."
The same 2018 study suggests that "musicians may build cognitive reserve over time as they process music in novel ways." Cognitive reserve is your brain's ability to improvise and find alternate ways of getting a job done. As we find ourselves struggling to remember a name or to solve a problem, it helps to have alternatives. It's like knowing alternate routes to get home when there's a big sinkhole in your way.
People with greater cognitive reserve are also "better able to stave off the degenerative brain changes associated with dementia or other brain diseases." One study showed that playing a musical instrument is "significantly associated" with a lower risk of dementia and cognitive impairment. Another concluded that "making music might be a potential protective factor for cognitive decline." Life experiences can affect your cognitive reserve and, therefore, your ability to avoid dementia or memory loss. Making music helps build that reserve, like money in a savings account, giving us another tool to help us age well.
What's even more encouraging? Results can happen quickly. One often-cited study, for example, showed that just three months of piano lessons (with a weekly lesson and three hours of weekly practice) helped participants aged sixty to eighty-five improve processing speed, verbal fluency, and memory. A more recent study concludes that "musicians are increasing brain connectivity across musical experiences from the time they begin playing an instrument."
I get a dopamine high both from riding my bike and from playing music. But during moments when I'm struggling to practice, it helps to know my brain will benefit from a music workout too.
Music Engages and Strengthens the Senses
When I go play at a jam, I come back refreshed, energized, and full of vigor.
— Dennis Matula, guitar player and retired engineer
When we play an instrument, we know we're physically engaged — we feel it in our hands, ears, lips, and lungs. We may be less aware that playing over time enhances our senses.
Musicians are better able to integrate sensory information from hearing, touch, and sight; University of Montreal researcher Julie Roy explains why these findings matter: "The ability of the nervous system to integrate information from all senses — sight, sound, touch, smell, self-motion, and taste — is critical to day-today life."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Making Music For Life"
Copyright © 2019 Gayla Mills.
Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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