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What Leads to a Lifetime of Music-Making?

Swedish researchers put their finger on a variety of factors, including starting early in life and taking lessons more than once a week.
(Photo: Teresa Kasprzycka/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Teresa Kasprzycka/Shutterstock)

The intellectual and emotional benefits of playing music have been widely documented in recent years. Yet many if not most people who take lessons as children put away their instruments or retire their singing voices by the time they reach adulthood.

So what sets certain people on a lifetime path of music-making, in spite of all their time pressures and responsibilities? Newly published research from Sweden finds predictive patterns in their childhood experiences.

It reports life-long musicians tend to be people who, as kids, practiced frequently, were surrounded by other musicians, chose their own instruments, and began taking lessons early in life.

A research team led by Tores Theorell of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm writes that, for each one-year delay in starting lessons, “there was a seven percent decrease in the likelihood of continued music playing.”

A positive attitude toward practice on the part of parents increased the odds that their offspring would still be playing when they were ready to have kids themselves.

Theorell and his colleagues examined detailed data compiled on 3,820 people—all twins who were born between 1959 and 1985, and who sang or played an instrument as a child. These participants in the Swedish Twin Survey answered a wide range of questions about their musical training, their early exposure to culture, and whether they remained active musicians.

Almost exactly half of them reported they continued playing into adulthood, and nearly two-thirds of those who did were still doing so at the time of the survey. “Among those who continued playing as adults, there was an over-representation of men, and of participants with a high level of education,” the researchers report.

This group also contained “a higher proportion of participants who had more than five persons who sang or played in their social environment when they grew up; who attended concerts and other cultural activities more than once per year; and who estimated that there were more than 100 recordings of music in their home when they grew up.”

“The strongest predictor of continued playing was total amount of music practice,” the researchers add. The researchers strongly suspect those committed players were highly motivated as kids, and their love of music keeps them going as adults. (Taking music lessons more than once a week was also a strong predictor.)

Looking at specific instruments, “Singing and guitar playing were associated with increased likelihood of continued playing,” they write, “whereas the opposite was found for piano playing and wind instruments.”

The researchers note that singing and guitar playing are useful skills to have at parties and other social gatherings. They also point out that “among those who had played piano as children, only 36 percent reported that they had chosen this instrument themselves. On the other hand, 60 percent of guitar players reported they had made the choice themselves.”

Interestingly, Swedish community music schools generally have more girls than boys, but the boys are more likely to become lifelong players. The researchers suspect many parents consider music lessons “an appropriate activity for girls,” meaning some are likely pressured to study music in spite of not being particularly motivated to do so.

Two additional findings: “The genre associated with the highest likelihood of continued playing was pop/rock, followed by classical music.” And younger participants in the study (that is, those who were 27 to 40 at the time of the interview) “had less likelihood of continuing than those in the older half (41-54 years old).”

That suggests a troubling trend of fewer young musicians continuing to play into their adult years. If you hope your kids can counter it, make sure they get started early—and give them lots of emotional support. A positive attitude toward practice on the part of parents increased the odds that their offspring would still be playing when they were ready to have kids themselves.