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Musicians Have Superior Memories

A new meta-study finds they out-perform non-musicians on memory tasks, including the critical ability to retain and process information.

It's hard to overstate the importance of "working memory"—the ability to retain information even as you process it. For a new fact to have an impact, you need to be able to hold onto it as you consider how it confirms, contradicts, or modifies your previous beliefs.

If your ability to analyze situations and solve problems suggests your working memory is particularly sharp, you might want to thank your music teacher—or the parent who pushed you to learn an instrument.

new meta-study concludes musicians tend to have stronger short-term and working-memory skills than their non-musical counterparts. The research, published in the online journal PLoS One, finds they also appear to have a small advantage in terms of long-term memory.

"Musicians perform better than non-musicians in memory tasks," writes a research team led by University of Padua psychologist Francesca Talamini. The Italian scholars offer several possible explanations for this, but concede that "none of them seem able to explain all the results."

The researchers analyzed 29 studies conducted between 1987 and 2016. All participants were young adults (their mean age was 23); the number tested in any single study ranged from 20 to 140.

Fourteen of the tasks they performed focused on long-term memory (that is, storing information for more than a few minutes); 20 assessed short-term memory (retaining five to nine items for up to 30 seconds); and 19 measured the aforementioned working memory.

The researchers found "a slight superiority of musicians over non-musicians" in long-term memory tasks, and a larger one in both short-term and working-memory tasks. Additional analysis found little evidence of confirmation bias (that is, the selective publication of studies that produced the desired results), which strongly suggests the relationship is real.

Not surprisingly, musicians performed best on working-memory tasks involving "tonal stimuli," but their "advantage extended to verbal stimuli, too." And on short-term memory tasks, musicians showed superior skills whether the item they were asked to recall was a musical tone, a verbal instruction, or a visual image.

Talamini and her colleagues offer several hypotheses as to why musicians' memories seem to be unusually strong. They concede it is possible that people with better memories choose to become musicians, but add that the pattern of results they found argues against that account.

A more likely explanation involves "the multi-sensorial nature of music training."

"Learning to play a musical instrument involves associating the music notation with the sound of the notes, and the motor response," they write. This process might "enhance an individual's active and controlled learning skills, which would be helpful when remembering stimuli in other kinds of memory tasks.

To put it another way, learning music apparently trains people in the art of "chunking," or breaking up long streams of information into more manageable (and easier to remember) chunks. Perhaps musicians "use more efficient chunking strategies," they write.

Whatever the explanation, the results offer further evidence of the cognitive benefits of playing music. Also, "Efficient Chunking Strategies" would be a great name for a band, as well as an unusually appropriate one.