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Music Training Fine-Tunes Memory

Students who take music lessons have better verbal recall, study shows

(HealthDay is the new name for HealthScoutNews.)

MONDAY, July 28, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- If Mom marched you to piano lessons or forced you to join the school orchestra, now may be the time to thank her.

Students who participate in musical training, such as playing the violin or flute, have better verbal memory than those who don't, claims a Hong Kong study published in the July issue of Neuropsychology.

The longer the training, the better the verbal memory, adds study author Agnes S. Chan, a psychologist at Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"Not so fast," counters at least one expert who contends the students who take music lessons may simply have those cognitive abilities to begin with.

Chan and her colleagues evaluated 90 boys, aged 6 to 15. Half participated in the school string orchestra program or took music lessons on instruments for one to five years. The other half had no training in music.

Chan's team gave the youngsters tests of verbal memory, asking them to recall as many words as they could from a list, and visual memory, asking them to recall images.

Those with musical training recalled about 20 percent more words than those without such training. Their verbal memory got better the longer they had taken music training. No differences in visual memory were found.Musical training during childhood, Chan writes, "might serve as a kind of sensory stimulation that somehow contributes to ... better development of the left temporal lobe in musicians." This, in turn, might facilitate verbal memory, which is mediated by that specific brain area, she adds.

But she concedes she has done no brain imaging to prove that. So the next step is "to conduct a functional [magnetic resonance imaging] MRI study on individuals with music training to examine the neurocognitve process of their brain," Chan says.

The results make sense to another expert who has studied the same subject.

"I found this study to be extremely interesting," says Frances Rauscher, an associate professor of cognitive development at the University of Wisconsin. "It provides strong evidence not only for a link between music and verbal memory, but also for the notion that specific types of experience affect specific cognitive domains. The finding that verbal memory, but not visual memory, is affected is very important to this specificity hypothesis. The study complements the growing number of reports showing differences between the brains of musicians and non-musicians."

"Overall, the research supports the idea that early training in music affects brain development and related cognitive function," Rauscher says.

But Nora Newcombe, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, says there are two major flaws in the new study.

The students were not randomized to the music and non-music groups, they were "self-selected," she points out. And, she adds, "It shows nothing [in a study] when you self-select."

The researchers' lack of brain imaging also bothers Newcombe.

"It could be true," Newcombe says of the finding that musically trained students have better verbal memory skills. But so far, the researchers have not proven it to her satisfaction.

Meanwhile, Chan says she is not suggesting parents demand their children take music lessons just in the interest of improving memory.

"Learning music is one way, but not the only way, to improve verbal memory," she says.

More information

For information on the effects of music, see Washington University. To find out how acronyms can boost memory, see Delaware State Education Association.

SOURCES: Agnes S. Chan, Ph.D., psychologist researcher, Chinese University of Hong Kong; Frances Rauscher, Ph.D., associate professor, cognitive development, department of psychology, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh; Nora Newcombe, psychology professor, Temple University, Philadelphia; July 2003 Neuropsychology
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