Musicians have better memory -- not just for music, but words and pictures too

ResearchBlogging.orgLast night in the U.S. many televisions were tuned to one of the biggest spectacles of the year: the American Idol finale, where America would learn which singer had been chosen as "America's favorite" (or, more cynically, who inspired the most teenagers to repeatedly dial toll-free numbers until all hours of the night). Greta and I are suckers for this sort of thing, so we watched along with the rest of the nation.

What impressed me about the show wasn't so much the prodigious vocal talents of the two finalists, but how everything was put together so hastily: there had been only six days from the previous week's episode (where the two finalists were revealed), and during this time each finalist learned at least three or four songs. The musicians who played along with them had no score to follow; they had to commit the songs to memory. Everything went off without a hitch, because these professional musicians routinely hold an astonishing variety of music in their memories.


If you've ever seen a symphonic concerto, you probably noticed that the soloist usually performs the entire piece -- lasting 20 minutes or more -- from memory: thousands of notes, all played with perfect pitch and intonation. Clearly many musicians have exceptional memories for the songs they play. So does this ability to remember hundreds of songs transfer into other types of memory? While there's been some research into musicians' memory, the results have been mixed. Most studies show that musicians have better memory for words than non-musicians, but there's less evidence that musicians can remember spatial information better. In one study, musicians couldn't recall locations on a map any better than non-musicians.

So a team led by Lorna Jakobsen tested 36 college students, 15 of whom had an average of 11.5 years of formal piano instruction and had passed a rigorous performance examination, while the rest had less than a year of musical training.

Two tests were given. In the first, the students listened to a list of 16 words chosen from one of four different semantic categories (e.g. birds, furniture, etc.). The list was presented five times, after each of which they tried to remember as many words as possible. Next they were presented a different list of 16 words as a filler interference task. Then they were asked to try to recall the original 16 words again, and accuracy was tracked. Then everyone took the separate visual test, and after completing that (about 20 minutes later), they were again asked to remember the original 16 words again. How did they do? Here are the results:


The students were actually tested on the words in two different ways: free recall, and cued recall, which was a multiple-choice test. The musicians performed significantly better than non-musicians in every test except the short-delay free recall. So this confirmed the previous research suggesting that musicians are better than non-musicians at remembering words.

The interference task was similar, but it focused on visuals. The students saw 15 simple drawings, presented one at a time. The drawings all consisted of a single line and a dot, arranged in different orientations. As with the word task, the students saw the pictures five times, trying to draw by hand as many of the pictures as they could recall each time. After they had done the word memory test, they returned about 15 minutes later to see how many of the drawings they could remember. The results were similar: musicians remembered significantly more of the drawings than non-musicians.

The researchers also paid careful attention to how the students were recalling both the words and pictures. Musicians, they found, used different strategies. With words, they were more likely than non-musicians to group the words into similar categories (like "eagle" and "robin"). With the pictures, non-musicians tried to verbalize the pictures, while musicians did not.

In both cases, the musicians' strategies proved to be more effective, and they also seem to duplicate strategies experts use to remember large quantities of information: they chunk it into related groups so that it's easier to recall later on. When they remember songs, musicians rely on the fact that the notes are related to each other (and in fact are no better than non-musicians at remembering random sequences of notes). They appear to apply a similar strategy to other memory tasks.

Jakobson, L., Lewycky, S., Kilgour, A., & Stoesz, B. (2008). Memory for Verbal and Visual Material in Highly Trained Musicians Music Perception, 26 (1), 41-55 DOI: 10.1525/mp.2008.26.1.41

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I am a musician and my husband and not and it has been frequently proven that I have a much better memory than he does. This gives us some interesting insight. I wonder, if he started studying music would his memory improve?

As a professional musician I can say that there are certain tricks of the trade that can make it seem that musicians know more than they do.

Most songs (especially modern ones) utilize a very small range of chords and are frequently repetitive with a common verse-chorus structure. As such memorizing a few songs in a week is not especially difficult especially in the case of what is essentially a "cover" show in which most songs are standards that many musicians will know fairly well.

By Patrick Gray (not verified) on 21 May 2009 #permalink

I was a professional ballet dancer and I've always thought my spatial perceptive memory was well trained.

After watching an evening length ballet like Swan Lake, audience members often ask, "How do you remember all the steps?" It's likely a mix of practice and chunking. Certain steps just go together, especially in something as formally structured as ballet. Combine this with music and it's not hard.

It would be interesting to include several different types of artists and see how they rate against a control group across word, spatial, music, pattern, etc. memory.

Yes I am certain that music increases your memory. When I taught ESL in Japan the classes where we were able to use music advanced quicker than those that did not. Especially with older kids and adults.

I also knew some kids in high school that used music to memorize items for tests when they knew the test would not utilize problem solving or critical thinking.

In relation to bg's post:

One great pleasure was with little kids and teaching prepositions. All the kids would run "under" the table or "on" the table. Of course only the lightest children would be (held) over the table.

By not_a_musician (not verified) on 21 May 2009 #permalink

... researchers also payed careful attention ...

Testing needs to be performed on whether psychologists' specialized recall of a vast range of abstract concepts interferes with recollection of arbitrary yet well-established details of orthography.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 21 May 2009 #permalink

I agree with Patrick Gray. Pop music is just not difficult at all to memorize at all. Most musicians would need maybe five minutes to memorize the 3-5 chords and changes in songs like "What's Goin' On", particularly since they'd heard in many times before and would already know these common chords. Bass players, who don't memorize chords but just notes, and especially drummers, have even less to memorize!

But, keep in mind, that all dedicated musicians practice their harder pieces an absurd amount. This would be like a regular person practicing a list of 100 words every day for four hours for two months--it is not surprising it becomes well-memorized.

I'd also wonder about possible confounds in piano-playing students vs. non-piano players, in that sometimes that might correlate to more "cultural" parents, richer families, etc., and it is those factors which could enhance memorization abilities, not necessarily the musicality itself.

As musicians, we are constantly training ourselves to memorize. We spend hours upon hours memorizing music, and using mnemonic cues such as melodies, song form, harmony, music notation, and so on to help us memorize. Many of us start at a very early age.

Not only that, but practicing music is really doing repetitive calisthenic exercise on the parts of your brain that process technical thinking. We count over and over again (one and a two and aâ¦), those beats are subdivided into fractions and complex mathematical iterations begin to permutate in both rhythm and harmonic elements of music performance.

"Bass players, who don't memorize chords but just notes"
I find it strange to think that (to a trained musician) remembering a C chord should be any harder than remembering to play C.

Pierce Butler:
Heh. Thanks for the correction. I've fixed the post.

Joe Lewis:
Great points. What this study demonstrates, I think, is that some of those strategies turn out to work for other types of memory.

I also find cm's idea that bass players have it easier because they only memorize notes. Bass player (in pop/rock and jazz) usually knows what chords are played when (i.e. the chord progression) - they memorize the same thing the guitarist does. They then comes up with what notes to play one his/her own (there are some "standard" patterns). I'm trying to say one is easier or harder than the other - just wanted to point out that generally the bassist is memorizing the same thing as the guitarist.

Personally, I (piano in elementary school, cello 4-7th grades, and played bass 8th grade through college, mostly classical some jazz) have never been good at memorizing sheet music (but I can walk a 12-bar blues in most any key you'd want.), however I have no problem memorizing songs.

By marciepooh (not verified) on 22 May 2009 #permalink

Not addressed in the post is whether or not people with better memories are more likely to become musicians in the first place! For example, I've had over 10 years of musical training but I'm terrible at memorisation - possibly a factor in my decision not to be a professional musician?

I've suspected this sort of phenomenon all along, but could find no studies to back it up.
I have a friend in college who just graduated with a 4.0 with his second bachelor's degree in chemistry; he used to be classical pianist and has a first bachelor's degree in music. We had many classes together (I was also a chemistry major), but he always did significantly better than I did on most test, despite long hours of studying on my part. He had the uncanny ability to recall great amounts of information after only a brief period of reading, somethings after only one reading. I, on the other hand, would have to read material dozens of times, and even then I would forget it soon thereafter. Now, I wish I had had more musical training as a child, but I could never carry a tune, and am tone deaf.

It could also be the case that people who have good memories are ones that become successful in playing music. I.e., having the good memory could lead you to pursue music because the strong memory helps you play well.

marciepoo and joel,

the point is of course arguable, depending on the piece. But consider, if a bass player plays the root note of the chord, he has to just remember that sequence of notes, which is one finger at one fret position, let's say at a particular point in the song a C note. But the guitarist may have to remember whether it was a C, Cmin, Cmaj, Cmaj7, Cmin7, Csus4, Cadd9, C11, C7add9, etc. In that regard, in certain cases, single-note playing (root playing) is less information to store than chord playing.

I am an amateur musician and professional psychologist. I think musicians are a bit like chess players: their apparently phenomenal memory may be a consequence of how they organize musical material in their heads--the chunks could be bigger than an average person's.

That is obvious because simple function like rhythm and lead voice can be once learned, easy transferred as carrier pattern of some other function..

It could also be the case that people who have good memories are ones that become successful in playing music. I.e., having the good memory could lead you to pursue music because the strong memory helps you play well.

This is an absolute great insight, a more complex better research could be done where a follow up of previous tested subjects some became musics and retest them afterward vs a control group from those that did not train music.

I wonder if this is related to reading speed and comprehension.

Often "good readers" are said to read faster and comprehend what they read better or equally well as slower readers.

I wonder if because faster readers group words, sentences and sometimes whole paragraphs into one idea they can remember it better and so it seems they "comprehend" better?

As a musician i believe that this is due to years of training to remember things rather than years of playing games, entertaining or working out things we already know in spare time.
If the musician spent the amount of time focussing on remembering words and images, their memory would be even greater, learning music doesnt make you a better person however

this seems like an obvious theory

@comment if you spend 10 years training you should be an excellent amateur at least if you trained adequately
there are many different chords and often multiple melody lines for pianists in comparison to bassists, so yes, it is different

I wonder if this is related to reading speed and comprehension.

Often "good readers" are said to read faster and comprehend what they read better or equally well as slower readers.