Home > Memory > Should I sign up for a real class or just take music lessons? Why music lessons are more than just a fun pastime.

Should I sign up for a real class or just take music lessons? Why music lessons are more than just a fun pastime.

When I was in fourth grade we had the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument in school. Between band and orchestra we were allowed to select any instrument of our choice and we received music lessons every Friday afternoon at the end of the school day. These instruments were like toys to us. Instead of hanging in the classroom and silently doing our math worksheets we were able to make loud noises with trumpets, violins, and drums. We would get so excited every Friday afternoon because we got to skip out on time normally spent sitting at our desks – we got what we thought was a break from learning.


However, music lessons are far from a break from learning. As it turns out, receiving music lessons actually improves certain components of working memory. How can taking music lessons possibly be more effective than learning mathematics or a natural science? To understand this, we must first examine working memory and its components.

Working memory helps explain how we retain information for more complex cognitive tasks. It is responsible for maintaining mental representations that help performance of cognitive tasks in an activated state. Working memory has multiple components, each of which has a specific function. The components of working memory include …

  1. The phonological loop which stores and processes verbal and auditory information
  2. The visuo-spatial sketchpad which is responsible for maintaining non-verbal information such as representations used in visual and spatial imagery
  3. The episodic buffer which maintains information from the other components and integrates this information with representations from long-term memory
  4. And the central executive which is responsible for regulating the flow of information between each of the other components

The multiple components of working memory are displayed in the diagram below.

working memory 2

Unlike short-term memory, which remains relatively fixed in that almost all people have a capacity of 7 +/- 2 items, working memory has more variability. Thus, training your working memory through music lessons can have academic benefits that could set you ahead of other individuals who have not trained their working memory in this way. People with good working memory are more efficient at shutting out irrelevant information, and may see benefits in reading comprehension.

The study Does music training enhance working memory performance? Findings from a quasi-experimental longitudinal study (Roden, Grube, Bongard, and Kreutz, 2013) explores how music lessons can effect the efficiency of working memory in elementary school aged children. In the study, over the span of 1.5 years, children were tested on three different occasions, and completed seven tests, each targeting a specific component of working memory. One group of children received music lessons while the other group received additional instruction in natural science. Generally, the results found that children who received music lessons had stronger developments in the components of working memory related to auditory processing when compared to those who did not receive music lessons.

As mentioned earlier, the phonological loop is responsible for storing and processing verbal and auditory information. In the study by Roden et. al., music training in children enhanced articulatory rehearsal strategies and improved storage of phonological information. Children who did not receive music training, and instead received extra training in natural science, did not experience long-term improvements in the phonological loop component of working memory. Even though taking music lessons may seem like a way to slack off and avoid tough work in a science course, you are actually training the phonological loop of your working memory more efficiently than if you were to stick with what may feel like a more serious learning experience.

While music lessons also showed an improvement of the functioning of the central executive, music training’s effects on working memory are most prominent in components that deal directly with auditory materials, like the phonological loop. So, next time you are considering what classes or extracurricular activities to sign up for, think about how you can improve your working memory. If music lessons is something new for you, give it a shot and you may enhance the capabilities of your working memory!

If this article was interesting to you, click here for another study about music’s role in memory.


Kellogg, Ronald Thomas. Fundamentals of Cognitive Psychology. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2007. Print.

Roden, I., Grube, D., Bongard, S., & Kreutz, G. (2014). Does music training enhance working memory performance? Findings from a quasi-experimental longitudinal study. Psychology Of Music, 42(2), 284-298. doi:10.1177/0305735612471239




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  1. November 30th, 2014 at 20:23 | #1

    In a broader sense I think that the results of this study show that generalization and variety are beneficial in strengthening memory as opposed to concentrated practice. This reminds me of the example mentioned earlier of practicing a sport. An athlete that practices a variety of skills would be more successful than an athlete that only practices one particular skill. For example, in basketball, learning how to shoot the ball from multiple positions on the court helps the player to develop the proper depth perception needed to be able to shoot the ball from anywhere on the court. If the player only practiced shooting layups, he/she wouldn’t have the skills necessary to shoot from behind the three-point line. So although intently practicing layups would improve that particular aspect of the player’s game, that type of concentrated rehearsal wouldn’t compare to a more generalized practice plan that involves shooting the ball from different positions. Going back to the music example, coupling music lessons with natural science lessons ‘works out’ your memory in different ways, using ‘different muscles’. This would undoubtedly be more beneficial to developing your working memory than would focusing solely on natural science lessons.

  2. cskrasni
    December 3rd, 2014 at 19:40 | #2

    One portion of this post that I found interesting was the statement that the effects of music training are mainly for auditory materials. At first this makes sense because music is auditory so it seems logical that it would affect auditory systems. It also is interesting if you consider the underlying neural networks that play a role in the perception of music. Most of this occurs in the temporal lobes of the brain, which is also where auditory perception is located. The right hemisphere generally deals more with tones, rhythms, and melodies whereas the left has more to do with the speed at which these are unfolding, which is used during music and speech comprehension. The left hemisphere performs most of our verbal lingual functions, and therefore gets plenty of training in school. The right temporal lobe however, likely does not get as much “exercise.” It probably isn’t a long shot to speculate that an increased training of the right temporal lobe increases connectivity with the prefrontal cortex which could improve functions such as working memory. It would be interesting to see if music students and non music students matched on working memory scores showed different abilities when the working memory task was non verbal. Anyway, studies these days seem to be finding that everything in the brain effects everything else, so it isn’t too surprising that music can have these positive effects.

  3. Emily Doyle
    December 3rd, 2014 at 20:56 | #3

    I found this article very interesting because of the implications it holds over improving working memory. In my cognitive psychology class this semester we learned about working memory. Working memory is often confused with short term memory, but is different. Working memory is an important part of the entire memory system because it allows you to store material while also focusing on other things, not just the most recent 7 plus or minus two items you have paid attention to. Also, as Sammy said in this post, a better working memory can provide many benefits, including shutting out irrelevant information more efficiently and reading comprehension.

    What I found cool about this post is how the researchers found that working memory could be improved by learning music. In class we discussed how working memory could be improved, but only slightly. So instead of improving working memory, people with poor working memory just learned other ways to work around things like reading comprehension and sorting irrelevant information. Kind of a born with it or not scenario. But, these results show that the phonological loop component of working memory can be improved by music lessons. That is an awesome finding, and one that could possibly bring about more research in improving the oh-so-important working memory!

  4. jfreeman
    October 21st, 2015 at 23:08 | #4

    Improvements in the storage of phonological information has potentially greater implications than those indicated by the author. First off, with music lessons increasing the capabilities of the auditory sections of the working memory system, one can attend to either more auditory information at once or at a faster pace than before. This could result in better note-taking skills, because the students can remember larger chunks of information stated by the teacher at once or over a period of time. Better note-taking skills should result students having better academic performances, especially if those students take the time to study those notes that they could write more efficiently, faster, and fuller. Therefore through this logic of reasoning, students who take music lessons could receive better grades than those who don’t (assuming all other variables are kept constant).

    Second, music lessons could lead to a higher general fluid intelligence. As indicated in the Results and Discussion section of The Cocktail Party Phenomenon Revisited: The Importance of Working Memory Capacity (Conway et al.), one interpretation of their results was that higher working memory span participants could inhibit interfering stimuli better than the lower working memory span participants. This ability to inhibit interfering stimuli is an important factor to general fluid intelligence. Therefore, a better working memory (which can become better through music lessons) could lead to a higher general fluid intelligence.

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