Art and music tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to education. When schools have to trim costs, some of the first programs to be cut are these disciplines. Parents and community groups try to step in where they can, offering music outside of school. Parents who are undecided about whether to enroll their children in music classes may want to take notice of a small study published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, which found that music may increase a child’s attention span and improve memory.

The study

The researchers followed 40 children, half of whom played an instrument. They had lessons for at least 2 years, practiced at least 2 hours per week, and played in a band or orchestra. The other half, the control group, had no formal lessons or practice, aside from school-based classes.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers examined the blood flow to the brain through the images as children performed tests that measured their memory and reaction time.

They found no differences between the 2 groups when it came to reaction time, but those who had music backgrounds did significantly better on the memory task. "Our most important finding is that two different mechanisms seem to underlie the better performance of musically trained children in the attention and [working memory] task," lead author Leonie Kausel, PhD, said in a press release. "One that supports more domain-general attention mechanisms and another that supports more domain-specific auditory encoding mechanisms." Dr. Kausel is a violinist and neuroscientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and the Universidad del Desarrollo Chile.

More to come

The researchers intend to continue studying how music affects children, to examine the connections, and perhaps to see if music can help children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The take-away

Although Dr. Kausel believes that it helps children to learn music, it’s not just for their memory or performance: "I think parents should not only enroll their children [in music classes] 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."