Music and Memory


Education Feature
Music and Memory
By Robert Seith
CWK Senior Producer

“Perhaps there is a change in brain structure that lasts, [but] parents should keep things in perspective and not expect tremendous academic gains.”
-Dr. Carol Drummond, a clinical psychologist-

Three years ago when Garrett Mclendon was 14, he began learning how to play the guitar. At about the same time, his grades improved, especially the grades in his English class.

“I’m pretty good at regurgitating information like vocab quizzes and stuff like that, just memorizing a word, just looking at what the definition is and kind of going from there,” Garrett says.

Did Garrett’s music lessons help improve his memory? A new study, published in the journal Neuropsychology, suggests it’s possible. In the study, a group of 90 boys with similar backgrounds and grade-point averages were compared. Those who took music lessons scored 15% higher in a verbal memory test.

“It could be that studying music improves attention, concentration, sequencing … there’s any number of conclusions that could be drawn from the study. But their data does suggest that there is a correlation between verbal memory and musical practice,” says Dr. Carol Drummond, a clinical psychologist.

In fact, a study published in the journal Nature found the region of the brain behind the left ear is known to be larger in musicians. That part of the brain is also responsible for verbal memory.

“Some analogy has been made that it’s like cross-training in exercising – that by working different parts of your brain actively, you can improve functioning in many different areas,” Dr. Drummond says.

Experts say memorizing is a skill that improves with practice. Music lessons may be one way of getting that practice.

“You get going and then you can kind of look at it … look at it one time and then play it back,” Garrett says.

Still, further study is necessary in order to prove conclusively a connection between music and memory. Either way, that’s OK with Garret’s mother, Vivian.

“I enjoy listening to him and putting together something, picking out chords or whatever it is that they do and putting something together,” she says.


New research from the Chinese University of Hong Kong indicates that studying music can improve a child’s memory and boost his or her academic ability. For their study, researchers evaluated 90 boys aged 6 to 15, half of which were members of the school orchestra with up to five years of musical training. After administering verbal recall and visual memory tests, researchers found that the boys with musical training recalled significantly more information than the non-musical boys. In fact, those boys with the most musical training had the best on verbal memory. In a follow-up study one year later, the boys who gave up music could not match the verbal memory of those who continued, yet they did not lose the verbal memory advantage they gained while they took music lessons.

For years, experts have touted the importance of arts programs in relation to a child’s development. Now new evidence suggests that studying the arts in school may help strengthen children’s academic and social skills in such a way that it makes it easier for them to achieve in higher-level courses, such as mathematics. The comprehensive report, titled “Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development,” also found that arts education is particularly beneficial for young children along with students who are economically disadvantaged or struggling academically.

Researchers from the Arts Education Partnership (AEP) reviewed 62 studies of how dance, music, drama, visual arts and other arts education affected student achievement. They found that strong arts programs are linked to improving communication and critical-thinking skills, school climate and student motivation for learning. The report cites the following relationship between arts programs and major academic fields:

  • Reading and language development: Certain forms of arts instruction enhance and complement basic reading instruction aimed at helping children “break the phonetic code” that unlocks written language by associating letters, words and phrases with sounds, sentences and meanings. Reading comprehension and speaking and writing skills are also improved.
  • Mathematics: Certain music instruction develops spatial reasoning and spatial-temporal reasoning skills, which are fundamental to understanding and using mathematical ideas and concepts.
  • Fundamental thinking skills and capacities: Learning in individual art forms, as well as in multiple arts experiences, engages and strengthens such fundamental cognitive capacities as spatial reasoning, conditional reasoning, problem-solving and creative thinking.
  • Motivations to learn: Learning in the arts nurtures motivation, including active engagement, disciplined and sustained attention, persistence and risk-taking, and also increases attendance and educational aspirations.
  • Effective social behavior: Studies of student learning in certain arts activities show student growth in self-confidence, self-control, self-identity, conflict resolution, collaboration, empathy and social tolerance.
  • School environment: Studies show that the arts help to create the kind of learning environment that is conducive to teacher and student success by fostering teacher innovation, a positive professional culture, community engagement, increased student attendance and retention, effective instructional practice and school identity.

What are some other reasons why you should encourage your child to take an active interest in the arts? Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the arts in America, cites the following benefits for youth who participate in the arts at least three hours on three days each week:

  • They are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement.
  • They are three times more likely to be elected to a class office within their schools.
  • They are four times more likely to participate in a math and science fair.
  • They are three times more likely to win an award for school attendance.
  • They are four times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or poem.
  • They are twice as likely to read for pleasure.
  • They are four times more likely to perform community service.

And according to the National Endowment for the Arts, participation in arts education programs has a positive impact on at-risk youth by deterring delinquent behavior and truancy problems while also increasing overall academic performance.


As a parent, what steps can you take to increase your child’s level of participation in arts programs? The Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE) suggests these tips for inspiring a young artist at home:

  • Teach your child songs, and enjoy singing them together.
  • Play different kinds of music from the radio or your own collection, and encourage your child to enjoy singing and dancing along with the music.
  • A simple paper and pencil or crayon can offer your young child the chance to express himself or herself. Even a scribble is a good beginning – the important point is for your child to feel encouraged and to develop the habit of writing and drawing. Your child’s skill will improve as he or she naturally compares his or her work to other pictures and words he or she sees. Drawing and writing together will help your child see that you value those activities as well.
  • Provide pictures and books available for your child to enjoy and value. Your local library can be a terrific source of material at no cost to you.
  • Practice photography with adolescents. Buy a disposable camera with which your child can practice. Talk to your child about composing a photograph – what is included and what is cut out through the choice of the photographer. Work together on creating family photo albums or other thematic collections.
  • Make videos together. Try organizing the shots ahead of time to tell a story as in filmmaking.
  • Read and write poems. Help your adolescent feel the rhythm in poems you enjoy reading and enjoy the fun of writing together within an organized system of verse. If it is difficult to create your own rhythm, practice by borrowing the verse and rhythm structure of a poem you enjoy and make up new words to fit the poem’s structure.

You can also work with your child’s school in order to encourage artistic and creative expression. The National PTA suggests you meet with your child’s principal or teacher to see what you can do to support an effective arts curriculum in the school. During your meeting, consider asking the following questions:

  • Does the district have a written, sequential arts curriculum that is used in grades K-12?
  • Does the curriculum include different aspects of art, such as art-making, discussions about the history of art, learning how to interpret art and the nature of art?
  • Does the curriculum have specific goals? Does it follow a sequence? Does it build on what students have learned in previous grades and prepare them for the next grade?
  • Does the school support its arts program through art textbooks, visual reproductions, films and slides?
  • Does the arts program draw upon resources in the community?
  • Does each student receive arts instruction from a qualified teacher for an adequate time period? (The National Art Education Association recommends at least 100 minutes per week for elementary students.)
  • Is the school’s arts program evaluated regularly for effectiveness? Are teachers given feedback to help them improve instruction?

Participating in community-wide efforts to promote arts education is another way to help your child gain an artistic advantage. CAPE offers these suggestions:

  • Most communities have arts festivals, craft fairs and even seasonal celebrations that feature music and dancing. The more opportunity your child has to see the arts in action, the more ideas he or she will get about how he or she can participate and contribute.
  • Attend presentations at professional venues (theater for younger children and adult dramas, comedies and musicals for older children; symphonies; jazz ensembles; dance companies and art exhibits) to help your child experience excellence in art.
  • Enroll your child in after-school or summer classes that teach drawing, dance, musical instruments, singing or theater skills.
  • Check out books from the library that tell stories about visual artists, dancers, actors and musicians. This will introduce your child to the arts and help him or her feel like he or she “knows” various artists.
  • Help your child understand art forms that were developed by people of your own racial or ethic heritage, or talk about family members who had a particular talent or interest in an art form (maybe your child’s grandfather loved to sing or his or her uncle was a good storyteller). Ask your child what art form he or she enjoys doing the most and encourage him or her to pursue it.
Americans for the Arts
Arts Education Partnership
Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education
Chinese University of Hong Kong
National Endowment for the Arts
National PTA