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.