Why Musicians Have Better Memory
Research is revealing a link between musicians and memory skills. What does that mean for the rest of us?
It’s a familiar story to fans of classical music: You take a novice to a piano concert, where you revel in the majesty of the music and the virtuosity of the performer. Afterwards, you discover your friend has also been awed — but for an entirely different reason. “Wow!” they exclaim. “How did she remember all those notes?”
It’s a legitimate question. Memorizing an evening’s worth of Mozart is “a huge memory feat,” according to Lynn Helding, a mezzo-soprano and a professor of voice at the University of Southern California. “The average vocal recital is 65 minutes of music — usually in several languages. Memorizing all that is a real brain workout.”
How do musicians do it, and can their techniques be adopted by the rest of us?
“Music has a special connection with memory,” says Dana Boebinger, a PhD candidate in the Harvard-MIT program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology.
A 2017 meta-analysis that combined the results of 29 studies suggests that professional musicians might have a memory advantage. It found a “slight superiority of musicians over nonmusicians” in tasks involving long-term memory, and a larger effect for tasks involving short-term memory. Furthermore, it concluded that musicians also tend to have higher scores on tests of working memory — the all-important ability to hold numerous pieces of information in your mind at once so you can analyze and synthesize them.
But don’t sign up for that clarinet class just yet. Lorna Jakobson, a neuroscientist at the University of Manitoba who has studied the effects of musical training on the brain, says meta-analyses often average out the results of “studies of variable quality.” So it’s still unclear just how strong the impact is.
She also notes that different kinds of information are processed and stored in different parts of the brain. This suggests the effects of music training, while real, may be limited.
“It might actually be musical aptitude, rather than musical training, that’s the key factor — your innate musicality.”
“There’s a lot of evidence that if you take musicians and nonmusicians and look at their performance on various cognitive or memory tasks, you often find pretty big differences,” says Boebinger, who plays the flute when she’s not in the classroom or lab. “The question is what causes those differences. That’s hard to get at. People are complicated!”
“It might actually be musical aptitude, rather than musical training, that’s the key factor — your innate musicality,” she says. “Those are the kids who enjoy, and stay with, musical training; they also have these enhanced cognitive abilities.”
Besides that chicken-and-egg question, there’s the issue of how far proficiency at memorizing music — whether learned or innate — extends to other realms. “I think it’s an open question,” says Boebinger. “You could be very good at holding many melodic lines, but does that hold for, say, numbers? That’s my intuition, but it’s up in the air.”
Jakobson agrees that much more research is needed before definitive statements can be made, but the results of a small-scale study she conducted in 2008 are encouraging. Comparing a group of highly trained pianists with a group of nonmusicians who were similar in terms of age, income, and education, she found the musicians were better at recalling both words and visual designs.
“Specific forms of music training,” her study concludes, “should lead to general improvements in both recognition and recall.”
One thing that seems clear is that musicians get better at memorizing by simply doing it. Specifically, they excel at “chunking” — breaking large groups of information into smaller pieces that are easier to recall.
“Musicians are masters at chunking,” says Helding, author of The Musician’s Mind: Teaching Learning, and Performance in the Age of Brain Science. “They’re not thinking of individual notes. A pianist sees a scale in their mind as an eight-note pattern. I call these packages of information.”
Jakobson uses the term “clustering,” which refers to grouping things together in the mind based on their perceived commonalities. This technique, which musicians develop as they study scores, can “help you process information in a more meaningful way, which should improve the chances that you’ll be able to recognize or recall it later.”
So there’s a good reason to believe musical training — if it’s undertaken in a serious way, involving daily practice — can reshape brains in ways that enhance memory. Boebinger notes that other techniques may turn out to be equally effective in this regard, but she believes the fun of making music increases the likelihood that people will keep at it, and thereby reap the cognitive benefits.
“Music is like language, in that it uses so many different parts of the brain, all communicating with each other at the same time,” says Helding. “It’s cognitively complex. The doing of it, especially on a daily basis, has got to be doing something amazing for our brains.”