by Michael Grey.
Piping Today #78, 2015/16

 These days we hear more and more about “ground-breaking” studies trumpeting the health benefits of one thing or another. News in tandem equally pronounces the many things that are seemingly bad for us. One day it’s a daily glass or two of wine that will add years to a body, the next your favourite Vino Collapso is marked as toxic organ-hardening poison. It’s all, in part, I’d wager, thanks to the wave of ageing “baby boomers” washing over the Western world. Perhaps more than others before it, the post-war generation wants to live forever — or, at the very least, not get old. There’s a trick.

Surely one of the great human paradoxes is our general aspiration to live a long life without that unappealing “old age thing” getting in the way.

As we all know, the steady, sure hand of age touches both body and mind. And the business of keeping people with sound mind is a huge one: online “brain training”, games, mental challenges and exercises are everywhere. This week came another study extolling the benefits of bilingualism. Studies have shown time and again that compared to those who can only speak their native tongue, a second language significantly delays the onset of many brain related ailments such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. C’est bon à savoir.

But it is music that seems to overtake every known antidote to aging when it comes to both medicine and New Age quackery. Music, after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible (Aldous Huxley) and music, the shorthand of emotion (Leo Tolstoy). Forget the glass of wine. Wait. That’s crazy talk, rather, forget those kale smoothies and Italian 101 night courses, take in music. Learn an instrument, memorise a tune, practice — play your heart out. That’s the golden age ticket.

It’s been known for well over a century that musicians’ brains are different. For instance, German surgeon, Sigmund Auerbach, found in his 1911 study that the brains of musicians showed elements of physical variants when compared to non-musicians (we’d all like to think bigger here — but I don’t know). Recent research (Chinese University of Hong Kong) using Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Positron Emission Tomography technology found physical connections to known cognitive benefits of music — especially in the playing of a musical instrument. Playing an instrument was described as “a full brain workout”.

Cognitive benefits of playing an instrument were found to be many: overall memory improvement with specific improvement of verbal memory and overall memory retrieval. The study found that children with as little as one year of musical training were able to remember 20% more words in their vocabulary. And for any piper with a little time for an intro to Italian course, research found musicians who learned their instrument young could learn new languages more quickly. Molto bene!

It’s clear music is the gift that just keeps giving. Thank you smart science people for the confirmation.

Which brings me to the superior musicians’ brain. So glad to think I have one. And if you’re reading this, you likely occupy the same neurofantastic world as me. What are we like! But. And there’s always one of those, isn’t there? A “but” to rain on the parade. A “but” to suck the good out of any time. I have this nagging doubt.

If my brain is “neurofantastic”, why do I sometimes get nervous when I make music? Why is it thoughts of apprehension and self-questioning occasionally and uncontrollably land in the middle of a good-going tune? Why do great musicians do stupid things? Like Pete Townshend and Kurt Kobain (when he was alive) who would regularly destroy their guitars on stage? In fact, why do I have nagging doubt? Why?

Maybe, regardless of how much music a person makes, the neuroplasticity of our brains (the ever-changing quality of our grey matter — especially that found in musicians) always retains a little of the artist, a little of the indescribable associated with a musician.

Our years of toiling in music-making, all the while keeping our brains in a nice healthy young rubbery state, might help us remember the cat’s name in our dotage, but what of the countervailing effects of a musician’s life? Think now of the emotional heartswelling joys and wrenching downs of performance, of competition. Does a life that includes this weaken or strengthen us?

Consider the many hours of a piper’s maximum heart rate — and then some — if a collective life-long performance was somehow calculated: 400 competitive crunluath doublings, 300 minutes of 120 BPM competitive medley closers, parts four or six of countless good-going competitive reels, the often racing pulse of a piper’s heart — and his tune — has any of it worn mind and body thin? And I mean thin in that fat way.

My neurofantastic brain tells me no. The context of a piper’s life, that which regularly sees the creation of music in environments of much intensity and occasional drama, makes us better. The scientists have confirmed what we thought pretty much all along: making tunes happen is a good thing. Our way of doing it as pipers burnishes our abilities and augments our musicianship.

The great French thinker Albert Schweitzer said that the only escape from the miseries of life is music -— and cats. So be thankful piping is keeping you neurofantastic while at the same time providing you with the future ability to remember your cat’s name when you’re 96. 

Mike Grey plays, teaches, judges, writes and publishes bagpipe musicHis Grey’s Notes series ran in Piping Today magazine for ten years.