Music may improve verbal memory – Implications for children with Down syndrome
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.
They find it harder to remember verbal information
than visuo-spatial information in short-term memory
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
Until recently, it had not seemed likely that the
adverse consequences of low working memory could be
However, significant and sometimes remarkable gains
in verbal short-term memory have been found both
using a parent-delivered intervention to improve
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
participantâ€™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.
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
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. However, some neurophysiological data suggests that music processing shifts from the right
hemisphere to the left, as experience increases.
This may go some way to explain why children with speech and language
difficulties can respond well to language through music.
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.
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