Why Music Lessons Are Good For The Memory

A recent study carried out with some young children has identified that learning to play a musical instrument from a young age promotes different patterns of brain development and actually improves memory.

So here is what I can glean from the reports on this study.  First of all it was carried out with a group of 12 children between the ages of 4 and 6.  Half of these had extra-curricular music lessons and the other half only had the music instruction that formed part of their normal everyday school curriculum.

The first thing to notice about this study is the very small sample group.  Just 12 children in the overall group and only half of those had the musical instruction that yielded an improvement in their memory.  So the headlines are hit with the findings of progress of 6 children!

Now this is not unusual for these sort of studies to have such small sample groups.  A few years ago the headlines announced that London Taxi Drivers had larger brains because of them having to learn the “Knowledge” – knowing every London Street and all of the quickest routes within 6 miles of Charing Cross Station.

Of course this was slightly distorted because the study found that the hippocampus was larger in these taxi drivers which is not surprising when you consider that this part of the brain processes navigation and is responsible for an aspect of long term memory.  The other thing to note about this study is that the sample size for that was just 16 cab drivers.

Why is the number important?  Well I am not going to go into statistical theory a) because it has been nearly 20 years since I passed that exam and confined its knowledge to the depths of my memory (pre-memory training before you give me a hard time for not remembering :-)) and b) because I think common sense will explain.

If you have a study with over 1000 people in it and the statistics show overwhelmingly that a particular result is common in those people (for example the report on drinking fruit and vegetable juice and its effect on Alzheimers that I wrote about recently) then that is likely to be true for most people.  If the same tests are only done with a very small amount of subjects then whilst the results might be valid, the confidence levels in their generally applicability to the rest of society is much less.

I myself took part in a study a few years ago where high performing competitors from the World Memory Championships had their brains scanned whilst using some of the memory techniques I will tell you about soon.

This study carried out at the Institute of Neurology in London discovered that we “superior memorisers” used more of our brain and had much better results when we used these techniques, one in particular.  But for that study there were only about 12 of us who were compared against 12 “normal” people.  That made the headlines too.

So as important as these findings may be, the size of the sample group means that the confidence levels in the results will be low (in statistical terms) and it is only when large scale studies are done with many more subjects will these findings begin to create an impact.

Anyway I digress, let’s get back to this study.  The children who had the extra music lessons did so a a Suzuki school (they have to do it whilst riding a motorbike! – sorry couldn’t resist).  The Suzuki method has very young children listen to music and then imitate it before they learn to read it.  This they did for a year and during that time the children were tested by having their brains examined with a device that measures magnetic fields outside the head whilst musical and none-musical noise was played to them.

The interesting thing that the study identified was that over the year, those who had the extra music training responded differently to those who hadn’t.  The response times in the tests reduced for all of the children as their brains matured but for those with the extra lessons their responses changed more.

In terms of an improved memory, what the researchers also found was that the children with the extra musical tuition performed much better at a standard memory test than those who hadn’t had the extra lessons.  The test consisted of listening to a series of numbers and remembering them.

This by the way is one of the events in the World Memory Championships and is called the spoken number event (for obvious reasons!).  A few years ago psychologists predicted that the human mind would never be able to remember more than 7 + 2 digits i.e. between 5 and 9 digits in a test of this type.

In the world memory championships I memorised and correctly recalled 122 digits and at the time came only the third person to ever break the 100 digit mark.  Now this is not because I am anything special, I just learnt how and practiced…and practiced…and practiced :-).

So it seems that in very young children music lessons can improve memory ability.  But how does this apply to you and I (if we don’t have any young children who we want to benefit from this)?

There are a variety of ways that music can influence and support memory training and development.  The most obvious example that most people can relate to is the ability to remember the lyrics to songs from many years ago, especially from our teenage years.  Yet how many of us can remember the words to some of the poems we would have studied more thoroughly in lessons at the same time?

In general listening to and certainly playing music on our instrument of choice is a great injection of positive and supportive stimulation to the brain.  Whilst playing an instrument your visual, auditory and motor regions of the brain are stimulated.  All of the senses are coordinated into one activity.

Research has shown that the corpus callosum (the bit of the brain that connects the right and left sides) is bigger in those that can play a musical instrument which means the brain integrates and combines both sides more effectively.  In addition mathematical and linguistic skills are also improved because the part of the brain that processes music also processes numbers and words (to all the neuro-scientists out there I recognise this is a gross simplification!).

I will write more about how music can help our memory and general brain development and stimulation but in the short term I would encourage you to take up a musical instrument at what ever age you are for these reasons:

  • Following the “Use it or Lose it” principle the extra stimulation of learning a new skill will benefit your cognitive abilities immensely
  • It is great fun
  • There is nothing more satisfying than playing something that at first you recognise and then that your family and friends recognise!
  • Who knows you may find time to start up a band and be the next big thing in the world of pop/rock/jazz/blues/skiffle!

I re-took up the guitar a couple of years ago and aside of the enjoyment I get from banging out the “Smoke on the Water” riff I find learning the instrument incredibly stimulating and a great source of pleasure (something disputed by my neighbours though!)

Now if you are playing or learning to play an instrument in your adult years do let me know how it benefits you and your memory.