Music Helps Kids' Verbal Memory
ABC News, July 29, 2003
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Remember those piano lessons you hated, or those dreaded hours
practicing the violin? It turns out they might have gotten you
better test scores.
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
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 Agnes Chan.
Debate Rages Over Music and Memory
So should you start taking your kids to music lessons? Not so
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
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
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
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 about."
Danger in Misinterpreting Research
Despite the controversy, most experts agreed that more work
needs to be done.
"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
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 instrument."
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
"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 psychology. "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."
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