You wouldn’t always know it by the number of clams that fellow musicians make onstage sometimes, but a recent study has found that musicians have better memories than non-musicians. This includes what’s known as “working memory” as well as short and long term memory.
Working memory is the ability to retain information at the same time as you process it. In order to do this well, you have to have memory of facts (or scales or chord patterns) first, then compare current information (like tempo and dynamics) against it, something that most pro musicians are very good at.
The research was conducted by a team led by University of Padua and published in the online journal PLoS One. 29 studies conducted between 1987 and 2016 were first analyzed, then a new study comprised of 14 different memory tasks was devised to measure different aspects of memory.
The study found “a slight superiority of musicians over non-musicians” in long-term memory tasks, and a larger one in both short-term and working-memory tasks. Musicians performed best on working-memory tasks involving “tonal stimuli,” as you would expect, but their “advantage extended to verbal stimuli, too.” And on short-term memory tasks, musicians showed superior skills whether the item they were asked to recall was a musical tone, a verbal instruction, or a visual image.
Why? It appears that learning music trains people to learn how to “chunk,” which means dividing large blocks of information into smaller and easier to remember chunks. The researchers are only speculating, but they think that musicians may be better at developing chunking techniques as part of learning music.
Anyone that’s ever played an instrument knows that musicians are always memorizing a wide array of music-related data. Scales, chords, songs, lyrics and everything else attached to performing are just part of the daily routine of the average player. Constantly exercising that memory muscle can only be good for you.