A German study has found that young children who took instrumental music lessons did better than their peers on verbal memory tests.
An 18-month study, led by Ingo Roden of Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg, has confirmed research conducted in Canada and Hong Kong that training in a musical instrument improves children's speech and language processing.
Writing in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the German researchers report that no similar effect to that of music training was found for children taking an enriched academic curriculum.
The study featured seven- and eight-year-old children (37 boys and 36 girls) recruited from seven primary schools scattered around Germany. Twenty-five received special music training above and beyond the basic school curriculum.
They participated in weekly 45-minute lessons where they played the instrument of their choice - guitar, violin, cello, flute, trumpet, clarinet or drums - and received tuition, with no more than five in a group. They also practised at home.
Another 25 children, taken from two primary schools that emphasised natural science skills, were given enhanced education in maths and general studies over the same period. A further 23 children received no additional instruction beyond the basic curriculum.
At the beginning of the programme, all took a series of tests to assess visual and verbal memory.
The researchers reported: "Across one and a half years, children in the music group showed a greater increase on every measure of verbal memory than the natural science and control groups."
They added that these trends prevailed after adjustment to account for influences of individual IQ and age and that improvement was seen continuously over time.
The researchers suggest the following reasons for their findings: "Playing music requires continued monitoring of meaningful chunks of information. Rather than individual notes, these chunks entail clusters of notes that are combined into meaningful melodic gestures and phrases."
There was an obvious parallel between that process and the way clusters of syllables combine in the brain to form words. In contrast with the verbal results - and in line with previous research - there were no similar increases in visual memory.