Working memory is our temporary storage unit for information. It is the folder we put our daily timetable in, what we need to take with us to work or school. It is emptied at the end of the day and very little of it is committed to our more permanent memory systems.
What types of behaviours do we see in children who struggle with their working memory? They may consistently forget the things they need for school or music lessons or struggle to remember a series of instructions, but cope just fine with one instruction at a time. They may need facts and processes repeated to them frequently as they struggle to hold them in their working memory folder.
Effective working memory leads to effective and efficient learning. With that comes experiences of learning success, feelings of confidence and positive self-concept as a learner. Working memory is key to positive childhood development.
What does music learning have to do with this? In a study released this week comparing the different types of working memory between 91 musicians and 99 non-musicians, the researchers found that three areas of working memory were enhanced – the motor–visual memory, verbal memory, and memory for the movements of others.
How could these types of working memory be used? Motor-visual is the ability to remember visual shapes and generate motor activity from these visual representations. It is an external representation of an internalised shape. If we think about that connection, getting the understanding from inside our brains to outside our body is useful with everything from forming letters when we are learning to write to rearranging furniture in our minds before we actually start moving them.
Verbal memory is the ability to remember words and other abstractions involving language. Schools are full of verbal communication. In fact, it might be the primary source of information exchange in a school, both in the classroom and in the playground. By having strong memory skills for words, instructions, changes in mood and warnings, it means a student will be able to engage in all parts of school life fully and not feel like they aren’t getting all the message and information they need to move forward.
Working memory for movements is the ability to remember a series of movements. Hand clapping games with a complex series of cross body hand claps and various clapping direction is a perfect example of this. Anyone who has seen the movie Pitch Perfect will know the Cup Song (https://youtu.be/Ixi9imJZ40M) which is an excellent example of working memory for movement. Through our working memory, many of these combinations become automated, meaning we don’t have to think very hard about them, which is how Anna Kendrick can sing along while completing the movement series. But imagine a student who can’t do this and has to think very hard about every next move. If this type of working memory is not functioning at its best, completing any series of movements in a regular classroom will be cognitively taxing. When students are cognitively tired many other skills such as attention modulation, focus and impulse control become very difficult to manage.
Get your students talking about the affects of their brains on music with our poster sets! Check them out here!
Working memory is vital to effective learning, and through this study, it is suggested that music learning may be able to improve several types of working memory.