Effects of a school-based instrumental music program on verbal and visual memory in primary school children: A longitudinal study

Roden, I., Kreutz, G., & Bongard, S. (2012). Effects of a school-based instrumental music program on verbal and visual memory in primary school children: A longitudinal study. Frontiers in Psychology, 3.

Abstract:

This study measured the effects of school based instrumental instruction on primary school children in Germany. Students were divided into three groups: a group receiving musical training on an instrument, a group receiving additional natural science training, and a group receiving no additional training. The music and science group received 45-minute weekly instructional sessions. Over the period of 18 months, the children were given verbal and visual memory tests three times. While no differences were found between the three groups for visual memory, the children in the music group showed significant increases on verbal memory tests, after controlling for socio-economic background, IQ, and age of the children. These findings are consistent with and extend previous research suggesting children who receive music instruction may benefit from improvements in their verbal memory skills.

Key Findings:

Children receiving weekly music instruction showed significantly greater increases on every measure of verbal memory in comparison to the science education and the control group over the 18-month instructional period. No effects were found on the visual memory tests across the three groups. Results for all measures were controlled for age, IQ, and socio-economic status and performance levels across all three groups were similar at baseline.

Significance of the Findings:

These results suggest that musically trained children developed more efficient short-term (verbal learning skills) and long-term (verbal delayed recall and verbal recognition skills) memory strategies compared to their peers in the two control groups. The large effect sizes found, which were higher than expected based on previous research, strengthen confidence in the conclusion that there is a relationship between instrumental musical training and increased verbal memory abilities. This suggests that musically trained children develop more effective memory strategies for words and phrases, suggesting that musical training may promote cognitive mechanisms that underlie child literacy and language development.

These findings are relevant for all stakeholders: parents, students, teachers, school leaders, and policymakers, as they reinforce the previous research that finds that music education supports increased literacy and language development in primary school age children.

Methodology:

The researchers selected 73 primary school children from ten different classrooms in seven schools located in different parts of Germany, and assigned to the three groups; the music group, the science group, and the control group. Participants provided the demographic information of socio-economic background, IQ, and musical background to ensure the groups were as similar as possible prior to the experiment. The students in the musical group received 45-minute classes on an instrument of their choice delivered by trained instrumental teachers from the public schools, and the class size was limited to five. The other two groups continued to receive the regular music instruction at their schools, and none of the three groups received additional music classes outside of the school day, other than self-reported instrumental practice for the music group. Results were measured three different times using a German adaptation of Rey’s Auditory Verbal Test to measure verbal memory and the Corsi Block Test and Matrix Span Test to assess visual memory. Baseline measurements were gathered at the beginning of the school year, the second measurement took place a year later, and the last measurement at the end of that year, with the entire experiment spanning twenty-two months.

Limitations of the Research:

Designed to show the effects of school based music instruction, the groups of five or less students for the research seems to not replicate the common class size structure. Additionally, the group receiving the science training involved larger groups. Furthermore, due to missing data and student self-reporting that varied significantly, it is not known the effect of at-home practice frequency and the effect that may have had on verbal memory.

Questions to Guide New Research:

  • Would these results be similar when done with older or younger age brackets, and is there an age where the brain responds best to musical instruction and its effect on verbal memory?
  • Did differences on verbal memory arise between type of instrument studied, such as string versus brass?
  • Are the same effects found in solitary practice of music, or is the verbal memory ability developed through the listening to another process rather than the listening to self process?