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JOURNAL: Neuropsychology, July 2003
AUTHORS: S. Chan, PhD
ABSTRACT: Children with music training have significantly better verbal memory than their counterparts without such training.
COMMENTARY: These findings underscore a kind of cognitive side effect that could help people recovering from brain injury as well as healthy children. When experience changes a specific brain region, other skills supported by that region also may benefit.
Psychologists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong studied 90 boys ages 6-15. Half had musical training, ranging from one to five years, through a string orchestra program at school and classical music lessons playing Western instruments.
Their schoolmates had no musical training.The researchers, led by Agnes S. Chan, PhD, gave the children verbal memory tests, to see how many words they recalled from a list, and a comparable visual memory test for images. Students with musical training recalled significantly more words than the untrained students, and they generally learned more words with each subsequent trial of three.
After 30-minute delays, the trained boys also retained more words than the control group. There were no such differences for visual memory. Verbal learning performance rose in proportion to the duration of musical training.
Even fewer than six years of musical training can boost verbal memory, the researchers reported. More training may be even better because of a greater extent of cortical reorganization in the left temporal region.The more that music training stimulates the left brain, they explained, the better that side can handle other assigned functions, such as verbal learning.
They likened the effect to “cross-training for the brain.” Similarly, said Dr. Chan, “Students with better verbal memory probably will find it easier to learn in school.” Dr. Chan and colleagues Yim-Chi Ho, MPh, and Mei-Chun Cheung, PhD, followed up a year later with the 45 orchestra students. Thirty-three boys were still in the program, and nine had dropped out fewer than three months after the first study.
A third group of 17 children had started music training after the initial assessment.The beginner’s group initially showed significantly lower verbal learning ability than the more experienced groups, but a year later they showed significant improvement in verbal learning. The boys in the group that continued with their music training also improved significantly.
Those who dropped out of training did not improve further, but they didn’t backtrack either. After a year they didn’t lose the verbal memory advantage they had gained prior to stopping lessons.
Music training during childhood is a kind of sensory stimulation that “somehow contributes to the reorganization and better development of the left temporal lobe in musicians, which in turn facilitates cognitive processing mediated by that specific brain area, i.e., verbal memory,” the researchers proposed.They contrasted their evidence with inconclusive reports that listening to Mozart improves spatiotemporal reasoning, which most researchers have been unable to replicate.
However, it’s too simplistic to divide brain functions, such as music, strictly into left or right, Dr. Chan said, because “our brain works like a network system—it is interconnected, very co-operative and amazing.” Most importantly, the authors said their findings “suggest specific experience might affect the development of memory in a predictable way in accordance with the localization of brain functions.
Experience might affect the development of cognitive functions in a systematic fashion.”While more research is needed, knowledge of this mechanism can “stimulate further investigation into ways to enhance human brain functioning and to develop a blueprint for cognitive rehabilitation, such as using music training to enhance verbal memory,” they concluded.