Aging and the Musician

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume C, No. 2February, 2000

Jackelyn Frost, CSW

People are living much longer these days, with life expectancy now at about 75 years – compared with about 47 years at the beginning of the 20th century. Aging is not easy for most people in our society, given that loss and illness often accompany it. And in many ways, older people in the United States are victims both of the youth orientation of modern times and of a tendency toward denial of death.

Aging has many repercussions for musicians, although its impact can vary greatly depending on what kind of music you play. Career longevity is a particular problem for rock musicians, who may experience a quick rise and fall in popularity as the result of rapidly changing trends. (Those unusual few musicians who do survive long-term are often praised for their remarkable ability to repeatedly “recreate” themselves.) In our culture, where attractiveness is often equated with youthfulness, the aging are frequently passed over. In extreme cases, aging can end a musician’s career.

Because music is not just an occupation, but also a calling – in which your identity is intimately tied up in being a musician – loss of that work, or even fear of its loss, can be disorienting and bewildering. As a musician, you have probably been very focused on your career from an early age. As a result, you may find that you are underdeveloped and inexperienced in other areas of life. This can leave you feeling a lack of confidence, low self-esteem, and depressed or anxious about the possibility of eventually having to seek other work.

Most musicians – like most people – use denial to avoid confronting the frightening knowledge that life has a limited duration, and that aging or injury can limit the length of one’s career. Some denial is not entirely unwise, as it can permit you to enjoy your capacities without fear of loss. But it is also important to plan for the future – for the possibility that you may need other skills to make a living, and a pension plan and/or savings for your retirement. This may be particularly daunting if you have little financial security now. But it is crucial to put thought into this matter. Some people consider planning for your retirement as important as planning for your career.


Aging brings physical as well as psychological and emotional changes. As a musician, your body is of vital importance in order to be able to perform. You may have overuse or misuse disorders, or age-related ailments. In fact, overuse or misuse disorders may begin in some musicians when they are students, and they do not appear to worsen as one ages. A study reported on in the December 1996 Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that trained musicians can continue to play at an extraordinarily high level, provided that they continue to practice.

This was a surprising finding because, as we age, muscles lose strength, coordination and the ability to recover from hard work. However, tests on aging concert musicians showed that they retained the finger-tapping speed and general reaction time of their youth, which are primarily measures of coordination, rather than of muscle function.

Being able to play a musical instrument depends greatly on your brain’s ability to coordinate the more than 500 muscles in your body. Your brain is far more durable than your muscles. Hence, musicians have longer careers than athletes or dancers, since those occupations are far more dependent on muscle function, which deteriorates with age.

While one would expect the incidence and severity of medical problems associated with playing an instrument to increase with age, some studies suggest that they remain constant. In one study of orchestral musicians, the incidence and severity of medical problems did not change with age from the 30s to the 70s. Another study found that medical problems peaked at age 35 and decreased in older groups. It is unclear whether these findings indicate that musicians with problems left the orchestra, or whether the older musicians had developed an increased tolerance of problems or learned to manage medical problems more effectively.


Two realities of medical problems in later life may affect you:

First, musicians are more vulnerable than most others to any disorder affecting the hands, the nervous system, the respiratory system, hearing, vision and even the ability to sit for long periods. With age, most diseases affecting these functions increase in frequency and severity. Musicians who may be forced to give up their careers because of these diseases could continue to do many other kinds of work.

Second, in later adult life normal aging results in basic losses in certain functions, such as memory. This may be offset, however, by the accumulation of knowledge, maturity, musical experience and interpretive powers.

Age and high noise levels have similar effects on hearing, and many musicians are exposed to sound levels that are potentially damaging. However, one orchestral study found that, despite complaints of hearing loss, no one had to retire from the orchestra before age 70 for this reason.

Pulmonary function also decreases with age. A violinist’s bow control may sometimes last to older ages than the wind or brass instrumentalist’s breath control. In one study, it was found that some string players continued in active service well into their 70s, whereas all players of wind and brass instruments had retired before age 70.

One orchestral player was recently quoted as saying, “As I age, I am less able to withstand not only the physical strains of playing the instrument, but also the emotional and artistic ones. To find oneself struggling to ‘live up to one’s reputation,’ to fight to produce the quality and consistency that once came so much easier, almost without thought, is a major depressor.”

However, it is interesting to note that most orchestral musicians who were studied retired for reasons that were neither medical nor related to difficulty playing. Most retired older than the mean retirement age in this country, which is between 61 and 62 years old.

For additional information and confidential assistance, 802 members are encouraged to call the MAP office at (212) 397-4802 and ask to speak to a social worker.

(Much of the material for this article came from the following sources: “Aging and the Performing Artists,” by Alice G. Brandfonbrener, “Aging and the Instrumental Musician,” by Richard J. Lederman, and “Problems, Challenges, and Opportunity through Aging of Performing Artist,” by Stanley E. Greben (all of which appeared in the journal Medical Problems of Performing Artists, Vol. 14, No. 2. June 1999) and “Dealing with the Stresses of Aging in Dancers,” by Stanley E. Greben and “Medical Problems of Orchestral Musicians According to Age and Stage of Career,” by David W.E. Smith (both of which appeared in Medical Problems of Performing Artists, Vol. 7, No. 4. December 1992). Other sources were “Gerontology,”; and “Coordination and Aging,” by Gabe Mirkin, Mirkin Report #6983, 12/26/96,