Parents take heart: While those hours of violin lessons may not transform your child into Itzhak Perlman, soldiering away at the squeaky tunes may pay off in unexpected ways.
According to a new study, children with music training develop a far better memory and vocabulary than children without such training. And the longer children persevere with their music training, the greater the benefits.
Agnes Chan, a psychologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the music lessons stimulate the left side of the brain, allowing it to better handle other assigned functions like verbal learning and improving overall brain functions.
She said students who study music outside the classroom have the same advantage as student athletes who live a healthy lifestyle.
"It's like cross-training for the brain," Dr. Chan said, noting that it's comparable to how runners find they are better tennis players because of their leg strength and endurance.
"Similarly, students with better verbal memory [those who study music]will probably find it easier to learn in school."
The study is published in this month's edition of Neuropsychology, the journal of the American Psychological Association. The research was conducted on 90 boys between the ages of 6 and 15, studying in Hong Kong schools.
Half the boys had musical training as members of their school's string orchestra program, plus lessons in playing classical music on Western instruments, for one to five years.
The others were schoolmates with no musical training. Researchers gave the children verbal memory tests, to see how many words they recalled from a list, and a comparable visual memory test for images. Students with musical training recalled significantly more words than the untrained students, and they generally learned more words with each subsequent trial of three.
What's more, verbal learning performance rose in proportion to the duration of musical training.
One year after the initial testing, researchers followed up with the 45 orchestra students. Thirty-three boys were still in the program, and the balance had dropped out.
The music students who stuck it out showed continued improvements in memory and vocabulary, while the dropouts had stalled.
The one consolation for the dropouts was that they didn't backtrack: They maintained an advantage over those who had never studied music.
Dr. Chan said music training during childhood is a kind of sensory stimulation that "somehow contributes to the better development of the left temporal lobe in musicians, which, in turn, facilitates cognitive processing mediated by that specific brain area -- that is, verbal memory."
She said her research on the benefits of music lessons is markedly different from controversial and much-discussed reports that listening to Mozart makes kids smarter.
That research -- which no one has been able to replicate -- is too simplistic, Dr. Chan said, because it tries to divide brain functions strictly into left or right. In reality, she said "our brain works like a network system, it is interconnected, very co-operative and amazing."
The researcher said that what is important about the new study is not that it shows parents that getting their children into music lessons young will give them a distinct advantage later in school, but that it provides important clues for treating children recovering from brain injuries.