To say that music has had a positive impact on my life would be an understatement. I have been playing music for the vast majority of my life. It has been a vital part of my upbringing and has become a vital part of my well-being. As I face professional or personal hurdles, I continue to turn to the guitar.
In my youth, I was fortunate enough to attend an elementary school that offered students the opportunity to join a music ensemble. With the gentle steering of my parents, I followed down the same path as my brother, father, and grandfather. My first experience playing a musical instrument was more frightening than exciting. I sat scared in a room filled with eager students and their uncooperative instruments as the music teacher tested our individual talents. When my turn finally came, I tried my very best to make the least offensive noise possible. In that instant, it was decided that I would play the clarinet. Throughout elementary and high school, I had no sense of loyalty to the clarinet and was mediocre at best. I never truly practised and this was piercingly apparent in my limited engagements. Playing music was always enjoyable, but I was entirely unmotivated.
This all changed when a close friend of mine took up the guitar with ambitions to start a band. As any teenage boy would, I eagerly followed suit. Without lessons or talent, I played, learned, and progressed at my own fun pace. This band of ours that we eventually formed – The Troubadours – did not go far, which in hindsight was probably a good thing (for some recordings of our misadventures see links below). In my late teens, I continued to play music primarily for myself. As I got better and gained confidence, I wanted to play for others, and as a partial utilitarian, I wanted my skills to be put to use. So over the next few years, I volunteered to perform at talent shows, charity fundraisers, and – of course – IGSA social events. I felt valuable, self-confident, and happy.
Looking back, I realize that only recently have I fully begun to appreciate the benefits of playing a musical instrument. Yes, it brought me joy, friendship, and maybe even a date or two, but there have been other less obvious advantages. Music has acted as both my emotional crutch and my intellectual whetstone.
As an emotional tool, the guitar has kept me sane. Whenever exams loomed, relationships crumbled or experiments failed, I consistently and unconsciously turned to my music. Tracing back through the years, the major milestones in my life can all be characterized by peaks in creativity and musical recording. Like most hobbies, I have adapted the guitar as a way to release anxiety and channel my emotions. The act of writing music allows me to express the emotions that I choose not to feel. This may seem unhealthy but it is a definite coping mechanism in times of rampantly high stress and emotion.
As an intellectual tool, the guitar has kept me sharp. Numerous studies have shown that playing a musical instrument improves memory, coordination, pattern recognition, and attentiveness. From an individual perspective, these benefits are entirely imperceptible but the effects are ever-present. The pursuit of music constantly challenges my creativity, perseverance, and dedication, all qualities required in a great scientist. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the list of past Nobel Prize winners and you’ll discover an overrepresentation of musicians, artists, and creative writers.
Let me end with a final personal anecdote. Some time ago over a dinnertime glass of wine, my partner proclaimed that she could assess my overall level of happiness by the frequency of my music playing. She reasoned that the happier I was, the more I would play and write. The scientist in me immediately agreed with the correlation but the causation was wrong. I do not play music when I’m happy but rather playing music is what makes me happy.
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