July 29, 2003 Washington -- Those dreaded piano lessons pay off in unexpected ways: According to a new study, children with music training had significantly better verbal memory than their counterparts without such training. Plus, the longer the training, the better the verbal memory. These findings underscore how, when experience changes a specific brain region, other skills that region supports may also benefit –- a kind of cognitive side effect that could help people recovering from brain injury as well as healthy children. The research appears in the July issue of Neuropsychology, which is published by the American Psychological Association. Psychologists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong studied 90 boys between age six and 15. Half had musical training as members of their school's string orchestra program, plus lessons in playing classical music on Western instruments, for one to five years. The other 45 participants were schoolmates with no musical training. The researchers, led by Agnes S. Chan, Ph.D., 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. What's more, verbal learning performance rose in proportion to the duration of musical training.
Thus, the authors say, even fewer than six years of musical training can boost verbal memory. More training, they add, may be even better because of a "greater extent of cortical reorganization in the left temporal region." In other words, the more that music training stimulates the left brain, the better that side can handle other assigned functions, such as verbal learning. It's like cross training for the brain, comparable perhaps to how runners find that stronger legs help them play tennis better – even though they began wanting only to run. Similarly, says Chan, "Students with better verbal memory probably will find it easier to learn in school."
Chan, along with Yim-Chi Ho, M.Phil., and Mei-Chun Cheung, Ph.D., followed up a year later with the 45 orchestra students. Thirty-three boys were still in the program; nine had dropped out fewer than three months after the first study. The authors now compared a third group of 17 children who had started music training after the initial assessment. This beginner's group initially had shown significantly lower verbal-learning ability than the more musically experienced boys. However, one year later, these newer students again showed significant improvement in verbal learning.
On the other hand, unlike the music students who stuck it out, the dropouts showed no further improvement. However, although the beginners and the continued-training groups tended to improve significantly, there was one consolation for the dropouts: At least they didn't backtrack. After a year, they didn't lose the verbal memory advantage they had gained prior to stopping lessons.
Ho, Cheung and Chan propose that music training during childhood is a kind of sensory stimulation that "somehow contributes to the reorganization-better development of the left temporal lobe in musicians, which in turn facilitates cognitive processing mediated by that specific brain area, that is, verbal memory." They contrast their evidence with inconclusive reports that listening to Mozart improves spatiotemporal reasoning, which most researchers have been unable to replicate. At the same time, Chan notes that it's too simplistic to divide brain functions (such as music) strictly into left or right, because "our brain works like a network system, it is interconnected, very co-operative and amazing."
Most important, the authors say, "the [current] findings suggest that 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." More research is needed, but 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."
Article: "Music Training Improves Verbal but Not Visual Memory: Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Explorations in Children," Yim-Chi Ho, M.Phil.; Mei-Chun Cheung, Ph.D.; and Agnes S. Chan, Ph.D.; The Chinese University of Hong Kong; Neuropsychology, Vol. 17, No. 3.
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