Study: Music Helps Kids' Verbal Memory

July 29, 2003 -- — 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 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 Agnes Chan.

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 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 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 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 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 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."