Francesca Talamini

Neuroscience, Technology, and Society, XXXI series
Grant sponsor

Massimo Grassi

Alessandro Sperduti

The memory skills of musicians and nonmusicians
Full text of the dissertation book can be downloaded from

Musicians seem to have superior abilities than those of nonmusicians, that are not just music-related but that extend to classic auditory and even cognitive tasks, in particular memory tasks. However, concerning memory, results tend to vary depending on the memory system investigated (i.e., long-term, short-term, working memory) and on the category of stimuli that are presented (e.g., verbal, visuospatial).
The present research project investigated the memory skills of musicians and nonmusicians, with the final goal of clarifying which (if there are some) characteristics of musicians are linked to better memory skills and if this advantage is general or depends on specific tasks or content of the tasks.
Study 1 investigated the literature on memory skills of musicians and nonmusicians through a meta-analysis. Three meta-analysis were conducted separately for long-term memory, short-term memory, and working memory. The effect of moderators was also tested; defined as the type of stimuli presented in the memory task (i.e., verbal, visuospatial, and tonal). The three meta-analyses revealed a medium effect-size in working memory and short-term memory (i.e., there is a moderate difference between musicians and nonmusicians) with effect of moderators. The advantage of musicians was larger for tonal and verbal stimuli and smaller for visual ones. In long term memory the effect-size was small, with no effect of moderators.
Study 2 aimed to understand if the advantage found in verbal working memory depended on the modality in which the task was delivered (i.e., stimuli presented auditorily or stimuli presented visually). 18 musicians and 18 nonmusicians performed a digit span task that was presented aurally, visually, or audiovisually. The task was performed with or without a concurrent task (i.e., articulatory suppression). Results showed that musicians had significantly larger spans than nonmusicians regardless of the sensory modality and the concurrent task. Secondary analyses showed that the advantage was more evident when the digits were delivered auditorily and audiovisually.
Study 3 aimed to investigate the individual differences among musicians. In particular, the goal was to understand whether the type of music training (classic vs self-taught) could influence the advantage of musicians over nonmusicians in verbal working memory skills, always taking into account the modality of presentation of the verbal stimuli (i.e., visual vs auditory). 102 young adults participated to the study: 33 reader musicians (i.e., that could read music notation), 33 nonreader musicians (i.e., self-taught, that could not read music notation), and 36 nonmusicians A digit span forward and backward was presented in three different modalities, alike study 2. Results showed that reader musicians, nonreader musicians and nonmusicians performed equally well in the digit span forward. However, the group interacted with the modality, revealing that reader musicians performed better than nonmusicians in the audiovisual presentation of digits. No other difference was found. In the backward digit span no difference among groups was found.
Study 4 aimed to understand whether the superiority of musicians in short-term memory extends to auditory and visual stimuli that are not verbal and not musical. 36 young adults participated to the study, 24 nonmusicians and 12 professional musicians. A verbal memory task was also included as control measure. In the short-term memory tasks, two sequences of elements were presented, with a short delay in between. The participant had to judge whether the second sequence was the same or different from the first. The types of stimuli composing the sequences where the following: verbal stimuli (i.e., syllables, presented either visually and auditorily); visual contour stimuli (i.e., luminance variations); auditory contour stimuli (i.e., loudness variations); visual nocontour stimuli (i.e., kanji ideograms); auditory nocontour stimuli (i.e., pink noises). Results showed that musicians outperformed nonmusicians in the short-term memory task with the auditory contour and nocontour stimuli, and with the visual contour stimuli.