To determine the effect of neocortical development associated with music training, we studied the verbal and visual memories of a group of adults. We studied 60 female college students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, of whom 30 had had at least six years of training with a Western musical instrument before the age of 12, and 30 had received no music training. The two groups of participants were matched (p >0.01) in terms of age (music training, 19.9; no music training, 19.6; t =0.99), grade point average (music training, 3.0; no music training, 3.0; t =0.21) and years of education (music training, 14.7; no music training, 14.3; t =2.07).

We assessed the verbal memory of each subject by the number of words she could recall in a list-learning task in which a 16-word list was presented orally three times to each subject. After each presentation, the subject was required to recall as many words as she could. We evaluated each subject's visual memory by the proportion of ten simple figures that she could draw from memory in the Benton visual-retention test6.

We found that adults with music training learned significantly more words than those without any music training (F (1,58)=17.69, p <0.01); results were consistent across the three trials (F (2,116)=274.05, p <0.01; Fig. 1). However, the performances of adults with (score: 7.2 out of 10) and without (score: 6.9) music training were not significantly different in the visual memory task (t (58)=1.00, not significant). Both results were replicated when the subjects were tested again with another list-learning task (t (26.89)=3.07, p <0.01) and another visual-memory task (the Rey-Osterreith7 figure immediate recall task; t (26.88)=0.44, not significant).

Figure 1: Mean number of words recalled by adults with and without music training.
figure 1

The list-learning task consisted of 16 words from four categories (‘family member’, ‘country’, ‘furniture’ and ‘vegetable’) that were presented in a fixed random order. The lis was presented orally three times to each subject, who was asked to recall as many words as possible after each presentation. The subjects with music training recalled on average 16% more words than those with no music training.

Because most memory-training programmes are based on mnemonic and compensatory techniques8, the idea of using music training to improve verbal memory seems unusual. However, music training has advantages over other techniques. First, it may be easier to engage children in playing musical instruments, which is an enjoyable activity, than in mnemonic strategies. Second, musical training requires little verbal skill, so it may be more suitable as a memory-training technique for patients with language impairment.

Our results provide preliminary evidence that music training may have a long-term effect on the improvement of verbal memory. Investigation of the effects of the age at which music training begins, and of the duration of training, will provide corroboration and theoretical refinement of our results.