July 28, 2003 -- The benefits of music lessons may turn up in more areas than just the recital hall. A new study shows children who take music lessons have better verbal memory skills than others and may find it easier to learn in school.
Researchers say the findings suggest that experiences that activate and alter a region of the brain may improve performance in other tasks supported by that area, much in the same way cross training boosts athletic performance.
More Music, More Memory?
In the study, psychologists in Hong Kong studied 90 boys between the ages of 6 and 15. Half of the boys had received music training as members of their school's string orchestra, plus music lessons on Western instruments, for up to five years. The others had no musical training.
Researchers gave the children verbal memory tests to see how many words they could learn and recall from a list and a similar test to measure their visual memory skills.
The study showed that the students with music training learned, recalled, and retained more words than the other boys. And verbal memory skills rose in proportion to how long they had taken music lessons. No such differences were found for visual memory skills.
"The more music training during childhood, the better the verbal memory," says researcher Agnes S. Chan, PhD, a psychologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and colleagues. "This strongly implies that the better verbal memory in children with music training is not simply a matter of differences in age, education level, or their family's socioeconomic characteristics."
Lasting Benefits of Music Lessons
In a second experiment, researchers followed up a year later with the 45 orchestra students. Nine had dropped out less than three months after the initial study, and 17 new students had begun music training.
This beginner's group had originally shown lower verbal memory skills than the musically trained students, but one year later these new students showed significant improvement in verbal skills.
Although the verbal memory skills of the nine children that stopped taking music lessons did not continue to improve after the training ended, their memory skills remained stable and they did not lose the advantage they had gained previously.
Researchers say this group of children had already had almost three years of musical training before they discontinued their music lessons, which means their training may have had a long-lasting effect.
But as shown by the new music students, as little as a year of music lessons was enough to provide noticeable benefits in verbal memory skills.
Researchers say more studies are needed, but learning more about how musical training boosts memory performance may one day help in rehabilitating people with memory loss.