Study reveals children who play a musical instrument have better memory and attention span

8 October 2020, 12:06 | Updated: 9 October 2020, 09:50

Children who play an instrument have better memory and attention, study finds
Children who play an instrument have better memory and attention, study finds. Picture: Getty

By Sian Hamer

A study shows young musicians who play an instrument, practise frequently and regularly perform in an orchestra have increased memory and attention skills.

Learning to play an instrument may be good for your child’s brain and could lead them to have greater creativity and a better quality of life.

The findings come from a recent study, which showed how musically-trained children performed better at attention and memory recall exercises. They also had greater activation in brain regions related to attention control and auditory encoding.

To conduct the study, 40 Chilean children between the ages of 10 and 13 were tested on their attention and working memory.

Half the children played a musical instrument, had had at least two years of lessons, practised for at least two hours a week and regularly played in an orchestra or ensemble.

Read more: 10 tips to help you practise more effectively >

The study looked at children aged 11 to 13
The study looked at children aged 11 to 13. Picture: Getty

The other 20 children, recruited from public schools in Santiago, the Chilean capital, had no musical training other than that provided in the school curriculum.

A series of audio-visual and memory tests were conducted on each participant while their brain activity was recorded using magnetic resonance imaging, which detects small changes in blood flow in the brain.

Researchers found there was no difference between the two groups in reaction time, but the musically-trained participants did “significantly” better in the memory task.

Read more: Nicola Benedetti: ‘Music teaching is vital to a child’s education’ >

Neuroscientist and violinist Dr Leonie Kausel, who worked on the study, explained: “Our most important finding is that two different mechanisms seem to underlie the better performance of musically trained children in the attention and WM memory task.

“One that supports more domain-general attention mechanisms and another that supports more domain-specific auditory encoding mechanisms.”

Read more: Brains of jazz and classical musicians work differently, study reveals >

To break down Kausel’s words into simpler terms, “domain” refers to how types of senses such as heat, sound, or light are encoded by the brain.

The use of “mechanism” refers to the neurochemical processes that occur.

In musically-trained children, both domain-specific mechanisms (when only one sense is processed) and domain-general mechanisms (when several are processed) appeared to have improved function.

The research team concluded that early music training increases the functional activity of these brain networks.

Read more: Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason: ‘Classical music isn’t racist. It’s about access to music education’ >

When asked if she felt children should sign up for music classes, Kausel responded: “Of course, I would recommend that.

“However, I think parents should not only enrol their children because they expect that this will help them boost their cognitive functions, but because it is also an activity that, even when very demanding, will provide them with joy and the possibility to learn a universal language.”

The research at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and the Universidad del Desarrollo Chile was published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience. Find out more about the study here.