If you’re a baby boomer, or perhaps an older sibling of one, you probably have been paying attention to what is described in a New York Times article today as “a booming industry” to help seniors exercise their brains. The feature article on the front page of the Business Day is titled “Exercise Your Brain, Or Else You’ll .. Uh…”, by Katie Hafner. The article largely focuses on the rapidly increasing number of software programs that specialize in “memory exercise”.

Indeed, there are already hundreds of memory exercise software programs, such as 200 listed today at http://www.rocketdownload.com/software/memory-exercise.html. Although I suffer frequently from memory loss, I don’t really need these memory exercise programs, because my family brutally tests my memory every day. “Mark, don’t you remember that… Now, come on, try to remember.” My family presents me with essentially daily memory flash cards, including grading of my performance.

I’m tempted to hunt down and quote here the most authoritative articles written in the last year on how marking music is good for our brains. Instead, I’ll just appeal to our intuition here. Learning to play a piece of music can’t help but be good for our memory. Even if you can’t play it fully by memory, you’re relying a huge amount on your memory as you perform the piece on your instrument, recalling all of the details of how the music sounds, and helping your fingers (and breath) execute your musical intentions.

Making music is a great low-tech, fun way to exercise your memory. If you have a hard time justifying spending that extra time each playing your instrument, think of it as analogous to devoting time to physical exercise each day, except that it’s probably more fun for most of us. There is no proof that it will help you lose weight, though.

For a somewhat more high-tech way to exercise your memory making music, here’s a very interesting idea that a customer, Michael Dodson, told me about yesterday. He is really into George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, and has the piano transcription for it. He took on a three-week project to “un-transcribe” the piano transcription back into something similar to Gershwin’s original orchestral version, using music notation software. At first glance, one might think that this is a silly idea, since the end result probably won’t be an orchestral arrangement that is any better than Gershwin’s original. It is the process here that is important, though.

In un-transcribing Gershwin’s music from piano back to orchestral, Michael’s head got deep into the music in a way comparable to a conductor does. Michael fanned out the various instrument parts from the piano reduction. He had to recreate the orchestral arrangement. He had to hear and make sense out of the lines of the various instrument parts. Michael told me, “Different sections would get to me and it was like meeting a new friend.” The final result of Michael’s efforts was a beautifully notated score, with Michael’s own hand in the arrangement. Although Michael already knew this piece well, he now knows this piece inside and out, like a conductor would. This was a fascinating brain exercise Michael came up with.

There are lots of ways we can exercise are brains with making music, with or without also software tools.