Why Play Music?

Listening to music puts us directly in touch with our emotional world:

“When words stop, music begins” – Heinrich Heine 1797-1856

“Music is the shorthand of emotion” — Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

Dancing to music also puts us in touch with our bodies.

But actually playing music does both, putting us in touch with both our emotions and our bodies in a way that few other activities can do. When we add to this equation the fact that playing music is an infinite source of (and outlet for) intellectual curiosity, then we have an activity that only needs the addition of the social facet of playing music with others (see Chamber Music) to become an almost infinite source of pleasure, fascination, interpersonal (and intercultural) communication and ultimately, meaning.

“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life” – Plato (428 BC-348 BC)

“The Theory of Relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition ……… my discovery was the result of musical perception …… these thoughts did not come in any verbal formulation ……… I rarely think in words at all…….. if I were not a physicist I would probably be a musician …….. I often think in music …….. I live my daydreams in music ………. I see my life in terms of music….. I get most joy in life out of music”   – Albert Einstein 1879-1955

It is curious and highly significant (but not really surprising), that musicians have much lower levels of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and general cognitive decline as they age than non-musicians (see here). The process of reading (decoding) a musical score and transforming it via physical movements into sounds, appears to maintain the neurological pathways in the brain in top form in the same way that physical exercise keeps our bodies strong and agile.

Not surprisingly, none of the authors of the above quotes were professional musicians. Professional musicians dedicate the greatest part of their lives to a non-verbal language and, with some notable exceptions (Schumann, Stephen Isserlis) rarely express themselves well with words. Also, the benefits of playing music are possibly greater for amateur musicians than for professionals because the extreme demands and expectations placed on a professional musician can counteract all the benefits that would be accrued by playing the same music in an amateur setting (see Amateur or Pro ?) In any case, the beneficial effects of playing music are not related to the level of achievement but rather apply to players of any level.


There are so many good reasons to play music, but there are also a few “bad” reasons. If we are playing music mainly to impress or satisfy others, to gain their approval, love or respect, then we will probably miss out on the main benefits and pleasures of music-making. When parents and teachers place too much emphasis on the musical achievements of their progeny then the healthy, beautiful, life-enhancing activity of playing music can not only lose all of its therapeutic benefits but may even become a negative, toxic influence.