Is it possible to learn a new instrument after the age of 40? We all know that the brains of children are highly plastic: that is, they’re easily able to take on new configurations to master new challenges, like playing an instrument. The minds of children are like clay, ready to be molded into whatever shape is required.

The minds of older adults, however, are different. All throughout our adult lives, the plasticity of our brains – their ability to learn new things and adapt – declines. And so many have begun to wonder whether it’s possible for adults to learn something as complicated as a musical instrument at all.

A Natural Experiment

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This is precisely the question that Gary Marcus, a New York University professor asked himself when he turned 40. Marcus had been playing the popular video game guitar hero with his wife. She had been instructing him on how to use the control, but it didn’t take long for Marcus to realize he wasn’t very good, especially compared to his musically-literate wife.

Marcus then began to wonder whether he was alone, or whether other adults found it difficult to learn. He soon got a beginner acoustic guitar and went away on music camp with a bunch of kids where he played in a band. It was a difficult experience because you began practicing on the Friday and had to be good enough to perform in front of people by Sunday. Needless to say, Marcus struggled.

Children Versus Adult Learners

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During his experience, Marcus noticed profound differences in the way that children learn and behave around new tasks. Marcus discovered that he was able to understand music theory with ease, something that the children struggled with. However, he also noticed that they were progressing in their musical ability far faster than he was, despite having no real workable understanding of the theory.

He put this down to perseverance. Whereas adults like him were tempted to give up at the first sign of trouble and move on to something a little less demanding, the children would carry on doing the same thing over and over again until they got it right. In a sense, kids were able to better endure boredom and the pain of failure than adults – something which was instructive.

Is Music Like Language?

Psychologists, like Marcus, know that language must be learned early on in a person’s life if it is ever going to be learned at all. It appears as if the human brain has evolved a window of time – a period of high plasticity – in which language-learning is possible. After that, the brain just can’t adapt.

Many wonder whether a similar phenomenon is at work when it comes to music. However, Marcus disagrees. He says that music simply wasn’t a part of a vast chunk of our evolution. And even until very recently, most music was percussive or vocal. He says, therefore, that people over the age of 40 probably can get good at instruments, so long as they’re willing to put up with numerous failures along the way.