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Music may improve verbal memory – Implications for children with Down syndrome

Stephanie Bennett

This article reviews some recent research evidence that suggests that music may improve verbal memory, and considers the implications of this research for children with Down syndrome.

Bennett SJ. Music may improve verbal memory – Implications for children with Down syndrome. Down Syndrome Research and Practice. 2009;12(3);173-174.


Working memory is the ability to keep information in your mind for a short time, focus on a task and remember what to do next. Within the working memory system, children with Down syndrome have a particular difficulty with verbal short-term memory[1]. They find it harder to remember verbal information than visuo-spatial information in short-term memory tests[2]. It is considered that the verbal short-term system, namely the phonological loop, is a major reason for the speech and language delays seen in children with Down syndrome[3]. Until recently, it had not seemed likely that the adverse consequences of low working memory could be overcome[4]. However, significant and sometimes remarkable gains in verbal short-term memory have been found both using a parent-delivered intervention to improve digit span[5], and using interactive and adaptive computerised memory training programmes[6,7].

Also, in the last decade, researchers have begun to investigate in detail how experiences can affect brain structure and cognitive function[8]. One particular study compared the brain structures of a group of musicians and non-musicians, and they found that individuals with musical training tended to have an enlarged left temporal lobe when compared to individuals without musical training[9]. Indeed, studies of patients with brain damage have shown that the left temporal lobe primarily mediates verbal memory, and that visual memory is mainly processed by the right temporal region[10].

Ho, Cheung and Chan found results which suggest that children with musical training demonstrated better verbal (but not visual) memory than those without such music training[11]. In their first experiment, ninety male participants aged 6-15 years were recruited from a school in Hong Kong. Forty-five of the participants had some level of musical training (MT) of between 1-5 years, and the rest had no musical training (NMT). The two groups were matched for age, education level and socioeconomic status. Results showed that participants in the MT group generally recalled more words than the NMT group. They also found that there were no significant differences in visual learning abilities between the MT and the NMT group. This suggests that musical training has no impact on visual memory.

Ho et al. also investigated the duration of music training to explore how this impacted on verbal and visual memory. They found that even when ruling out possible confounding factors (age and education level), there was a significant relationship between the duration of musical training and the participant’s verbal learning score (r = 0.54, p<.001). A similar analysis was carried out between duration of music training and visual learning and visual memory and the relationship was low (r = 0.22 and 0.21 respectively). Ho et al. consider that these results are not just specific to a Chinese population, as a similar verbal memory advantage has been demonstrated in young adults with musical training in Canada[12].

In their second experiment, Ho et al. conducted a longitudinal analysis which suggested a causal effect of music training on the improvement of verbal memory. They tracked and compared changes in verbal memory among a sub-group of children who began, continued, or finished musical training within a 1 year period. Prior analysis confirmed that there were no significant differences between the three groups on age, education level, general intelligence and verbal and visual memory abilities. Analysis showed that the verbal learning ability of the beginners group was significantly lower than those of the continued and discontinued training groups at the beginning of the study. One year later, the continued group demonstrated significant improvement in verbal memory, but the discontinued group however did not change. To summarise, children who had received one year of music training (regardless of their musical background), demonstrated lasting improvements in verbal learning and retention abilities. This study clearly suggests that musical experience affects the development of cognitive functions.

It is considered that speech and language development localises in the left hemisphere in the brain, whereas musical stimuli is generally processed in the right hemisphere[13]. However, some neurophysiological data suggests that music processing shifts from the right hemisphere to the left, as experience increases[14]. This may go some way to explain why children with speech and language difficulties can respond well to language through music[15]. To summarise, musical training may improve verbal memory in typically developing children and this may have implications for planning new speech and language interventions for children with Down syndrome.


  1. Buckley SJ. It is time to take memory training seriously. Down Syndrome Research and Practice. 2008; 12(2):105-106. doi:10.3104/updates.2902
  2. Jarrold C, Baddeley AD. Short-term memory in Down syndrome: Applying the working memory model. Down Syndrome Research and Practice. 2001; 7:17-21. doi.3104/reviews.110
  3. Buckley S, Bird G. Memory development in individuals with Down syndrome. Down Syndrome Education International;2001. doi:3104/9781903806081
  4. Kremen, WS, Jacobsen KC, Xian H, Eisen SA, Eaves LJ, Tsuang MT, Lyons MJ. Genetics of verbal working memory processes; A twin-study of middle aged men Neuropsychologica. 2007;21:569-580.
  5. Conners FA, Rosenquist CJ, Arnett L, Moore MS, Hume LE. Improving memory span in children with Down syndrome. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research. 2008; 52(3):244-255.
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  10. Milner B. Intellectual function of the temporal lobes. Psychological Bulletin. 1954;51:42-62.
  11. Ho Y, Cheung M, Chan A. Music training improves verbal but not visual memory: Cross sectional and longitudinal explorations in children. Neuropsychology. 2003;17(3):439-450.
  12. Kilgour AR, Jakobson LS, Cuddy, LL. Music training and rate of presentation as mediator of text and song recall. Memory and Cognition. 2000;28:700-710.
  13. Love RJ, Webb WG. Neurology for the Speech-Language Pathologist. Boston, Mass: Butterworth-Heineman; 1992.
  14. Hirata Y, Kuriki S, Pantev C. Musicians with absolute pitch show distinct neural activities in the auditory cortex. NeuroReport. 1999;10:999-1002.
  15. Barker J. Singing and music as aids to language development and its relevance for children with Down syndrome. Down Syndrome News and Update. 1999;1(3):133-135. doi:10.3104/practice.147

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