Menus Subscribe Search
(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

More Evidence Music Training Boosts Brainpower

• January 09, 2013 • 12:24 PM

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

A German study finds young children who took instrumental music lessons did better than their peers on verbal memory tests.

Want your child to get better and better with words? Put a musical instrument in his or her hands.

That’s the implication of a new paper from Germany, which confirms and augments research conducted in Canada, and Hong Kong. Across cultures, it appears, training on a musical instrument improves kids’ verbal memory.

The results of an 18-month study suggest “a positive transfer effect from musical expertise onto speech and language processing,” writes a research team led by Ingo Roden of Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg, Germany. In the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers note that no similar effect was found for kids taking an enriched academic curriculum.

The study featured 7- or 8-year-old children (37 boys, 36 girls), recruited from seven primary schools scattered around Germany. Twenty-five received special music training above and beyond the basic school curriculum.

Specifically, they participated in weekly 45-minute lessons, where they played the instrument of their choice (guitar, violin, cello, flute, trumpet, clarinet, or drums). Specifics differed somewhat from school to school, but the students received individual attention (with no more than five in a group), and they were instructed to practice regularly at home.

Another 25 children, taken from “two primary schools that emphasized natural science skills,” were given “enhanced education in mathematics and general studies” over that same 18-month period. An additional 23 children received no additional instruction beyond the basic school curriculum.

At the beginning of the program (as the school year started), all took a series of tests to assess visual and verbal memory. For verbal memory, they were asked to listen to and recall a series of 15 words immediately after hearing them, and then again after 25 minutes. They were then asked to pick them out of a list of 30 words.

“Across one and one-half years, children in the music group showed a greater increase on every measure of verbal memory than the natural science and control groups,” the researchers report, adding that these trends “prevailed after adjustment of the model to account for influences of individual IQ and age” and that improvement was seen continuously over time.

Precisely why isn’t clear, but the researchers have some solid ideas. “Playing music requires continued monitoring of meaningful chunks of information,” they write. “Rather than individual notes, these chunks entail clusters of notes that are combined into meaningful melodic gestures and phrases.”

There’s an obvious parallel between that process and the way clusters of syllables, meaningless in themselves, combine in our brains to form words. And in contrast with the verbal results—and in line with previous research—there were no similar increases in visual memory.

While further research will be needed to explain the specific brain mechanisms reflected in these results, they reinforce what the researchers call “the beneficial effects of music education of children at primary schools and, possibly, preschools, in terms of their cognitive development in general, and language acquisition in particular.”

Given this evidence, cutting music classes to concentrate on “basics” such as building vocabulary seems counterproductive.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.