Music is key to learning languages

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The Independent Online
CHILDREN WHO learn a musical instrument are more likely than non-players to be verbally agile in later life, according to a study published today.

Adults are significantly more adept at memorising new words and extending their vocabulary if they had music lessons as children, according to scientists who tested a theory that music improves intellectual ability.

The study supports previous research which found that the left hemisphere of musicians' brains is more highly developed than the left brain hemisphere of people who have never learnt to play an instrument.

Professor Agnes Chan and her colleagues Yim-Chi Ho and Mei-Chun Cheung of The Chinese University of Hong Kong compared 30 female students who had been taught to play music before the age of 12 with 30 students who had never taken music lessons.

"We assessed the verbal memory of each subject by the number of words she could recall in a list-learning task in which a 16-word list as presented orally three times to each subject," the researchers report in the journal Nature.

"We found that adults with music training learned significantly more words than those without any music training [and the] results were consistent across the three trials."

Three years ago, scientists at the Heinrich-Heine University in Dusseldorf, Germany used brain scanners to show that good musicians had a well developed left hemisphere, specifically the planum temporale region of the brain which is involved in verbal memory.

Professor Chan hypothesised that a better developed left hemisphere in adults who were musically trained as children, when nerve connections are "hard wired" during the crucial first years of brain development, will also help them to remember words.

The study found that musically trained adults were able to learn, on average, 17 per cent more words than their contemporaries. Yet the scientists found that the two groups showed no difference in their visual memory which is controlled largely by the right hemisphere of the brain.

"We show that adults who received music training before the age of 12 have a better memory for spoken words than those who did not. Music training in childhood may therefore have long-term positive effects on verbal memory," Professor Chan said.

She suggested that music could also be used to treat patients suffering from amnesia and children with language impairment who are taught to use mnemonics as a way of improving verbal skills.