Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


(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

October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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