Making Memories Through Music

Take note. Music lessons may improve verbal memory.

If your child's vocabulary could use a little beefing up, consider signing her up for piano lessons. New research finds that children who study music are better able to remember lists of words than children with no such training. The study bolsters previous hints that studying music can improve verbal memory.

In the past 25 years, researchers have found correlations between music training and improvements in a variety of skills, particularly verbal abilities such as reading and remembering words and song lyrics. In 1998, clinical neuropsychologist Agnes Chan of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and colleagues reported that adults who had studied music for more than 6 years had better memory for words but not for shapes. The study couldn't pin down, however, whether it was music training, or simply a better education or some other unknown shared quality that made musicians better wordsmiths.

Hoping to minimize this uncertainty, Chan and colleagues tested the verbal memory of 90 students, half of whom had been studying music for 1 to 5 years. They gave the children three tests: one that asked the kids to recall lists of words, another to recall groups of shapes, and a third to draw shapes from memory. The music students were better at recalling words, but they were no better with shapes, supporting the earlier finding with adults.

A set of follow-up experiments provided evidence that music training itself accounts for the difference. One year later, the team retested 24 students who had continued music lessons, nine who'd quit, and 17 who had started music training. Verbal memory improved in those who'd stuck with their lessons and improved even more dramatically in those who'd recently taken up an instrument, but the quitters' memory got neither better nor worse, the researchers report in the July issue of Neuropsychology. The comparison points to music training as the memory-enhancing activity and suggests that the changes are likely long-lasting.

The study "provides compelling evidence" that formal music training is responsible for the improvements in verbal memory, says neuropsychologist Lorna Jakobson of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. Previous studies have found that the part of the brain responsible for verbal memory is larger in musicians, and Jakobson and Chan agree that future studies should investigate whether music training boosts development of the region, thereby making musicians more handy with words.

Related sites
Agnes Chan's home page
Lorna Jakobson's home page

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