New Data Shows Music Performance Helps Long Term Memory

New research suggests playing music is more than a great deal of fun — it could benefit your long term memory.

By Jonathan S. McNamaraFebruary 10, 2015 9:41 am

For musicians, the advice is always: practice, practice, practice. Now it looks like the brain, not just the skills, are getting a boost too.

At UT Arlington’s Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory Laboratory, director Dr. Heekyeong Park and graduate student James Schaffer worked on a study that found evidence to suggest that professional musicians have better long-term memories than non-musicians.

First, they recruited two groups of people: professional, classical musicians who tended to play a classical instrument for more than ten years, and non-musicians who did not have formal music training beyond the K-12 curriculum. A computer-based study session showed subjects lists of words about objects and lists of pictures depicting nature scenes. Then, they were asked to study those items, about 120 each. A memory test of the studied items is presented afterwards, but with new items as well.

“So they had to differentiate between the words they’d studied and the new ones,” Schaffer says. “The test comes kind of right after, but because there are so many items in the study session, it would have to be long term memory to remember all of them.”

How did the musicians do?

“They had better memory for studied items, and made less mistakes of taking new items as studied items,” Dr. Park says.

So a word or a picture appears on a screen. If you’re a classically-trained musician like the ones Dr. Park and Schaffer tested, you’re more likely to recognize a word or image you’ve seen before and less likely to mess up when presented with a word or picture that wasn’t part of the list.

Which begs the question: How much of a difference are we talking about between musicians and their non-musical counterparts? That’s a little complicated.

“From our data, musicians tend to have better recognition of previously listed pictures statistically,” Dr. Park says. “Musicians also did show better recognition with words as well, but it did not reach to significance.”

Visually, musicians performed so well that it couldn’t be the result of random chance. It’s possible that musicians have better verbal long-term memory too, but a larger sample size and another round of testing are needed to be sure.