Music Helps Kids’ Verbal Memory
Remember those piano lessons you hated, or those dreaded hours
practicing the violin? It turns out they might have gotten you better test
According to a new study, children with music training had
significantly better verbal memory than those without such training, and
the longer the training, the better the verbal memory. The research, conducted
at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was published in the most recent
issue of the journal Neuropsychology.
Researchers studied 90 boys between the ages of 6 and 15. Half had
musical training as members of their school’s string orchestra program,
plus lessons in playing classical music on Western instruments like the flute
or violin for one to five years. The other 45 students had no training.
Students with musical training recalled more words in a verbal
memory test than did untrained students, and after a 30-minute delay, students
with training also retained more words than the control group. No differences
were found for visual memory.
In a follow-up one year later, students who continued training and
beginners who had just started learning to play both showed improvement in
verbal learning and retention. But students who had stopped training three
months after the first study failed to show any improvement, although they
hadn’t lost the verbal memory gains measured earlier.
“The present findings suggest that the experience of music training
might improve the memory functioning that corresponds to neuroanatomical
structures that might be modified by such training,” said lead researcher
Debate Rages Over Music and Memory
So should you start taking your kids to music lessons? Not so fast.
While the study adds to a large volume of research being done on
music and the brain, it has also caused an intense amount of debate.
The researchers believe when music stimulates a region of the brain
called the left temporal lobe, a beneficial side effect is better
performance at other functions, such as verbal memory. That might also
explain why no difference was seen for students’ visual memory, since that
is mainly processed by the right temporal region.
But Chan admits it is too simplistic to assign brain functions such
as music strictly to the left or right brain, since the organ is very
interconnected and complicated. “This study is not just about music and
memory,” she says. “This data also suggests that our lifestyle can affect
our cognitive processing in a systematic way.”
Agreeing is Frances H. Rauscher, associate professor of psychology
at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. “The study complements the growing
number of reports showing differences between the brains of musicians and
non-musicians . It provides strong evidence not only for a link between
music and verbal memory, but also for the notion that specific types of
experience affect specific cognitive domains.”
But other experts criticized elements of the study’s design and
warned against misinterpretation of the results. Others cautioned that people
should note the differences between the groups were statistically
significant but only modest.
One of the main criticisms is the “chicken or the egg” dilemma.
“There is no way to tell whether students with better verbal memories are the
ones that tend to study music, or whether students who study music develop
better verbal memories,” explains Evan Balaban, head of the Neurosciences Program at The City University of New York-College of Staten Island.
Added Robert Zatorre, professor at the Montreal Neurological
Institute at McGill University: “The conclusion the authors are jumping to that
music causes improved memory is something we have to be extremely careful
Danger in Misinterpreting Research
Despite the controversy, most experts agreed that more work needs to
“The take home message is that music training does have an effect on
cognition,” acknowledges Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, director of the
Neuroimaging Laboratory and associate professor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School.
But Schlaug also emphasizes, “It’s important in studies like these
one considers such non-musical factors as attention, concentration, or
learning how to learn. I believe there is a true music effect, but we can’t ignore
other things that might play a role and come for free if you play an
Experts caution against parents sending their kids to music lessons
just to make them smarter. “Despite all the media hype about Mozart and
smarts, there’s no evidence that listening to Mozart at any age makes
anyone smarter,” argues Sandra E. Trehub, professor of psychology at the
University of Toronto.
Zatorre agrees. “This study provides a sense of expectations to
educational people. Parents might think, ‘I’m going to sign Johnny up for
music and his grades must improve or else.’ That’s the connotation of this
study and we must be careful. It may turn out to be true, but based on
this design we can’t conclude that.”
“An unfortunate piece of this puzzle, in my view, is that our
society sends parents the message that they should be playing music because it
will help their infants with ‘important’ things like math or reading,” says
Jenny Saffran, University of Wisconsin-Madison associate professor of
“This misses the point. Treating music as a means to non-musical
educational ends, like making you smarter or helping your memory, dilutes what makes music special.”