Many of us come to a music as kids, curious to what it feels like to play guitar, piano, violin or some other instrument. And it probably didn’t take that long for us to attempt to compose something new as well. But what if you never discovered music as a kid? You might think that you missed that window for learning music and it’s closed forever. Luckily, it turns out, this is not true!
So are you too old to learn piano, guitar, or violin? Are you too old to learn how to write a song and compose music?
You are never too old to learn and create music. You can learn piano, guitar, violin, songwriting, or composition at any age. Science has proven time and time again that the human brain is capable of learning music and retaining new information anytime, no matter how old or young you are.
You can learn almost anything, including music, at any age. You can even learn how to read music as we discussed earlier in this article: Can anyone learn to read music? In today’s article we’ll have a look at 10 great musicians who came to music late (or late-ish) and crushed it anyway! Then we’ll see how your brain plasticity can help you learn piano, guitar, songwriting, or composition, whether you are a teen, middle-aged or perhaps a pensioner.
10 Musicians Who Came Late to Music – And Crushed It Anyway
Here is proof that you’re never too old to learn music. We’re spoilt for choice for examples of amazing musicians who came late to music (and crushed it!).
Aram Khachaturian (1903 – 1978)
Aram Khachaturian’s life as a Soviet-Armenian composer began when he was 18 years old. At that age, he enrolled in music school (without any prior musical training) while studying biology at the same time.
His musical journey took off with studies on the cello, starting composition class only 3 years later. Today, Khachaturian is recognized as a leading Soviet composer and credited with bringing Armenian folk music to the world.
Here is his ‘First Symphony’, which was also his first success as a composer. Khachaturian composed this in 1935 as his final graduate work at the age of 32.
Iannis Xenakis (1922 – 2001)
Xenakis studied music briefly as a young boy but life in Greece was interrupted as the war broke out in 1940. After graduating with a degree in Civil Engineering, he had to flee to Paris.
There he sought the musical guidance of various famous teachers such as Nadia Boulanger, Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud but they didn’t see much in him. It was the great composer Oliver Messiaen, however, who encouraged the 30-year old Xenakis to take his own background and experiences (that of being Greek, an architect and a mathematician) and apply them to music.
Today Xenakis is remembered as an important innovator in 20th century classical music. Listen here to the intense Metastaseis for orchestra. He also wrote a theory book called “Formalized Music: Thoughts and Mathematics in Composition”. It’s expensive but if you’re interested in how maths and music combine, check it out on Amazon here.
Emmanuel Chabrier (1841 – 1894)
Here’s another interesting composition career to look into. French composer, Chabrier, did have music lessons from the young age of 6 but took to composing full-time only at 39 years old. Up to that point, he followed his father’s footsteps (and encouragement) to study law.
Chabrier worked as a civil servant at the French Ministry of Interior for 19 years, maintaining his love of music and composition in his free time. He was inspired to quit his job and do music full-time after listening to a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. By this time, his long part-time musical career had been gaining momentum anyway!
Listen here to one of his most enduring works – a rhapsody for orchestra called España – written in 1883 (at the age of 42) after a trip to Spain.
Chabrier is proof that It’s never too late to change course!
Tom Morello (1964 – )
Tom Morello joined his first band at age 13 but only as a singer. He took to the guitar seriously at age 18. Today he is well-known as the guitarist of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave.
Joe Satriani (1956 – )
Known as amongst the best guitarists of all time, Satriani is said to have been inspired to play guitar at age 14 – upon hearing of the death of Jimi Hendrix. Like some of our other examples, he took music seriously starting at 18. Here he is performing one of my favorites (and most creative) songs to a crowd of adoring fans!
Alexander Borodin (1883 – 1887)
Borodin is today known as a member of ‘The Mighty Five‘ (also ‘The Mighty Handful‘) – a group of Russian nationalistic composers who aspired to write music that sounded more Russian and less western. His earliest known composition, most of which is lost, is from 1850 when he was 17. But despite his interest in music, he went on to pursue a career in chemistry instead. He left music for his free time.
His work as a chemist was very successful and very respected. He was even made a professor at the age of 29. Borodin maintained music in his free time throughout his career in science. The turning point came when, in 1862 at the age of 29, he met the great Russian composer Balakirev.
Balakirev gave composition lessons to Borodin and under this guidance, started working on the 1st Symphony, which was performed 6 years later. Despite never pursuing music full-time, Borodin continued to compose as a member of The Might Five. Today, he is known for his opera Prince Igor, 2 symphonies, and his string quartets. Listen here to his well-known symphonic poem ‘In the Steppes of Central Asia’ composed in 1880.
Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869)
Although music was a very small part of his education as a young boy, Berlioz loved music and he studied the basics on the guitar and the flute. He attempted composition for the first time at the age of 12 when he had a crush on his 18-year old neighbour. At this point Berlioz tried to study harmony from books.
Obeying his father’s wishes, Berlioz enrolled at the School of Medicine of the University of Paris at age 18. He didn’t particularly like the field but moving to Paris was pivotal. There he could go to the opera houses to listen to music. His second hearing of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride convinced him to take on composition.
Berlioz graduated but quit the field, much to the disapproval of his father (who suggested he take on law instead). In 1826, at the age of 23, he was admitted to the conservatory where he could finally study music composition full time.
Albert Roussel (1869 – 1937)
Roussel is another French composer who shifted gears and took on music later in life. In fact, he only just started studying harmony in 1894 (aged 25). Up to that point he was more interested in mathematics and worked with the French Navy.
Allan Holdsworth (1946 – 2017)
Allan Holdsworth was a composer and guitarist in a variety of genres. Judging by his fantastic career that lasted 4 decades, you’d assume he played music since birth! But actually Holdsworth got his first guitar when he was 17 and got his first music lessons from his grandfather – not a remarkable start by any means!
Bill Withers (1938 – )
Bill Withers is the songwriter behind a handful of the most loved songs ever such as Lean on me, Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone and Lovely Day. He moved to Los Angeles for a music career at 29 after 9 years serving in the US Navy. Even then, he only did music part time for a while.
Why it’s never too late to learn music
It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that you’re too late – that you should have started music when you were 4 years old. We don’t all have to be like Mozart, whose father (a famous composer himself) was fully dedicated to his son’s musical education from the very start. Just because we don’t start playing and writing music before we could even dress ourselves, doesn’t mean we’re too late.
Reading these biographies, it seems that life is actually rarely that straightforward – rather, we go through twists and turns, change interests and try new things. Everyone’s life is its own story. The only common thing between them is their love of music. As long as you have that, you’re not too late.
What is Brain Plasticity and How Does It Affect Learning Music?
Since this is a music website, we won’t dive too far into the endlessly fascinating rabbit hole of neuroscience, but to fully understand how and why you can learn music at any age, it’s important to understand how the brain works.
Put in the simplest terms, neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change throughout life. It does this by growing and shrinking the neurons (brain cells) as things are learned or forgotten. Connections between neurons are strengthened every time you repeat a familiar action, for example. Any actions you stop making will soon see their neurons slowly degrade over time until the skill is forgotten.
“Use it or lose it!”An old adage proven right by neuroscience – and it goes for music too.
It is how many middle-aged people have forgotten how to write cursive smoothly because everything is typed or punched into mobile devices now. That skill isn’t being used like it was before, so the pathways are degrading. Those that still write in cursive on a daily basis will retain the ability, while those who have stopped writing by hand will become slower or sloppier at it. Basically, the science confirms the old adage “Use it or lose it.”
Scientists know that neuroplasticity exists because of numerous studies done over the decades surrounding all aspects of brain development. They’ve identified certain times in a person’s life where brain plasticity is most noticeable.
We all know that infants are born ready to learn! Their brains are primed for new information and making new connections. This inborn brain plasticity lasts throughout childhood and it’s why most children are able to learn music so easily! They were born to learn.
The next situation that encourages brain plasticity is when anyone at any age learns a new thing. This can be a skill or new words and languages, anything at all. The more they practice the new skill, the more neurons will be connected for that new skill. These become stronger and faster, making that new information easier to access. This is the type of plasticity that most adults can tap into to learn music, no matter how old they are.
By the way, science has also shown that elderly people who challenge their brains by learning something new or solving puzzles age slower than those who don’t! Sure brain plasticity reduces with age BUT it is always there.
Traumatic Brain Injuries
The next type of brain plasticity has to do with brain damage. Scientists have seen this in countless studies and through repeatable experiments. Human brains can adapt to traumatic brain injury by switching the lost skills to a new area of the brain. It creates new pathways and new neurons to make up for the injury. Often, the patient must re-learn these skills to rebuild full pathways, but it’s certainly possible and has been proven over and over.
A fascinating thing about music and brain injuries is that music has been shown to help people suffering from traumatic brain injuries! So, not only is it possible to learn all these cool new musical skills, but it’s actually good for the brain.
Using Brain Plasticity to Learn Piano, Guitar, and Songwriting as an Adult
This is where all your new neuroplasticity knowledge is going to come in handy. Science says you are never too old to learn piano, guitar, songwriting, or composition. In this article, scientists looked specifically at musicians and non-musicians. They found that professional musicians and those who practiced for at least an hour per day had a higher volume of gray matter (cortex brain matter) than people who didn’t play at all. People just learning music or who didn’t practice as often were somewhere in the middle.
So, yes, you can learn composition and playing instruments at any age. It takes practice and dedication, but that’s what your brain was designed for. Your age has no bearing on your success as a musician or a songwriter, so forget your worries about missing that magical window of opportunity.
“Those who practice for at least an hour per day had a higher volume of gray matter.”
~ Sharp Brains
To learn songwriting at an older age, you just need to focus on it. It’s a new skill, just like any other new skill. Remember that you had to learn to walk and talk and brush your teeth. You had to learn how to do complicated math and write legibly. You had to learn how to do your job, too. You weren’t born with any of this knowledge, but you learned it all. Music is no different.
In this article I wrote a few months before this one, you have a list of 15 things to do and 5 to avoid, to become better at music composition. I highly recommended giving it a good look:
How to Get Better At Music Composition – 15 Do’s and 5 Don’ts
Find a Teacher
To harness brain plasticity as an adult and to learn to compose music or play instruments, you’ll need to find a teacher, guide, books, or website. Find something or someone that works for you. By playing to your established strengths (reading versus watching videos, for example), you’ll be tapping into your brain’s existing pathways.
A good teacher will help you get started the right way, right away!
Finding the right teacher, mentor, or website will help you focus your energy in the right direction. For older learners, this is an integral part of maximizing neuroplasticity. These professionals and pro websites will know all the tricks to help you get on the road to learning your new musical skills. You know how hard it is to undo a bad habit. A good teacher will help you get started the right way, right away!
Finding a teacher, guide, mentor, or website to help you learn songwriting as an adult is only the first step. You must take your lessons seriously and actually put them to use.
Remember how I mentioned above that the more you do something the stronger the pathways in your brain become? Add that knowledge to the article I linked that showed how musicians’ brains had more volume when they practiced more. That’s what you’re aiming for.
Your brain needs to build new neurons and make new pathways while you learn to play piano, guitar, or any other instrument. The more you practice, the more you use these new skills, the stronger they become. And if you habitually skip practice? Well, you’ll start to lose that gray matter volume and you’ll start to forget your new skills. Don’t let that happen.
Tap Into Your Adult Brain
One advantage that adults have over children when it comes to learning anything about music is that adults have experience and knowledge that children simply don’t. That means that adults have an innate, deeper understanding of music as a whole.
Kids are learning the skill because their parents want them to or because they may have an interest in it. They are doing what they’re told and absorbing the skills, but they don’t usually understand the root of music, the theory behind it.
However, an adult will learn to compose music because they want to and because they understand the music on a deeper, more personal level. Adults can understand music theory and more complex aspects of composition than kids can. Tap into that mature logic, those experiences, and that understanding of the world to create amazing music.
Select a music type and learn that first
One of the best ways to use brain plasticity to learn music as an adult is to use the pathways that already exist. You can do this by focusing on learning the music you really enjoy listening to. Those pathways are already there, so all you’ll be doing is branching off from them. Your brain will recognize this music as something you enjoy, so the process of learning to write songs or play an instrument as an adult will come much easier and be much more relaxing. Consider that a brain hack.
This is one place that kids have it easier than adults. They are often told what to do and when. Distractions are naturally removed from their learning environments and they are given the space and the time to focus on learning to play their instruments. Adults rarely have that luxury, so you’ll need to make it yourself.
Remove distractions from your learning area and practice time. Turn off your phone and mobile devices, turn off your computer. You may even wish to remove your watch if you’re distracted by watching the time. Close the doors and windows, and ask any housemates to leave you alone. Setting aside an hour each day should be your goal, but if you can find more than that, great!
Is It Harder to Learn to Compose Music as an Adult?
Just because I said it’s possible to learn musical skills as an adult it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy. It’s easier to learn this stuff as a kid because your brain is like a sponge. But as I’ve shown, science has proven that even seniors or people with brain injuries can learn new skills. You’re never too old!
Of course, it’s not as easy to learn music as with simpler tasks. You’re going to be retraining your brain to use muscles in ways that you never did before. That’s tough! You’ll be teaching your brain to think of things you may never have thought of before: pitch, tempo, reading music. These are all things you’ll suddenly be asking your mind and body to be doing, and often all at once.
Be patient and give your mind and your body time to adjust to these new skills and these new demands. It will happen, but you must be patient and stay dedicated.
Some adults hold themselves back out of fear. Yes, it’s scary to learn a new skill. Adults are full of a lifetime of worries and failures and mistakes. But they’re also full of successes! As adults, we often forget to focus on the positives in our lives and all the things we can do. When it comes to learning piano, guitar, songwriting, or composing as an adult, you must stay focused on the positive. You can do it, even if you’re afraid to fail. You’ll make mistakes, and that is okay. It’s all part of the process. Learn from the mistake and try again.
One simple of way of starting is to have a look at this article. It will show you how, in very practical ways, you can start learning within minutes: Can anyone learn to read music (or is it too hard)?
If you’re an adult who has always wanted to learn to play piano, guitar, or any other instrument, you can! If you’re an adult who has always wanted to write songs or compose music, you can! Science has proven that the human brain is capable of growing and changing, even in the adult years. It takes time, effort, patience, and practice, but it’s never too late to learn to make music.
Have a look at this wonderful TED presentation. It really confirms everything we’ve said today.
“Did you know that every time musicians pick up their instrument, there are fireworks going off all over their brain?”