Musical memory as we age

Hello Dear Reader,

As many of you will know, I have a special interest in musical memory. For my PhD I created tests of simple pitch and letter memory to allow me to compare verbal and musical memory processes. Those tests have recently been updated to new MATLAB tasks by Emma Greenspon from the Auditory Perception and Action Laboratory at the University of Buffalo. If anyone is interested in these new tasks then contact me, we would be happy to provide them.

Because of my particular interest, I am drawn to research that moves forward our understanding of musical memory. In October of 2017 I was notified of a new paper in PLOS ONE on how musical memory differs between children and adults.

The paper talks about memory for melody. The first important thing to note is that melody is an abstract feature of music. We are talking not of the actual pitches, but rather the pattern of pitch movements. The often cited example is the melody for ‘Happy Birthday’ – we may all start singing at different pitches, but the pattern of ups and downs is what we recognise; the melody.

Another key term for this new paper is ‘recognition’. This paper and many others use recognition as their memory paradigm. In these experiments people hear the tunes to remember and then at a later time they hear those same original tunes mixed in with some new novel ones. They have to say ‘old’ or ‘new’ to each test tune.

Recognition is an easier task compared to ‘recall’, which has been used in a smaller number of memory research cases, including my own. During recall tests participants don’t hear the old tune again. They try to recall it either by singing or by using an abstract system (like the grid from my tests). Recognition and recall are two different memory processes so evidence from both will be necessary in the end to fully understand musical memory.

So back to the new paper. It is know that after only two exposures to previously unfamiliar melodies, adults can recognise the tunes for over a week and the musical key for over a day. Do children form long-term memories for previously unfamiliar melodies this rapidly?

This is an interesting question as research has suggested that children actually focus differently on new melodies. They are better at reporting on the actual notes, whereas adults attend better to the abstract melody. It may be that adults and children perceive both notes and melody but a bias for absolute notes in early childhood becomes a bias for relative melody processing in adulthood.

The new paper looks at recognition memory for melody in 7 year olds, 11 year olds and adults, to see if it can identify evidence for this hypothesised ‘shift’ in memory focus.

The 24 test melodies were drawn from collections of British and Irish folk tunes – simple yet unfamiliar melodies heard in a piano timbre. 12 of the melodies were used for the test and 12 for the recognition part of the test (i.e. as ‘new’ stimuli).

As predicted, adults recognized the melodies better than older children, who in turn had better recognition than younger children. Females also outperformed males, which was not predicted but seemed to be a strong effect. A downside of the paper is that there is no testing of IQ so we can’t make any conclusions about this kind of group differences.

Another shame is that there is not a test of memory for the notes as well as the melodies. This would have allowed for a full test of the theory that children’s memory for melody is not as good as adults as their focus is biased towards the absolute notes in the melody. A test for another day.

A final result was that recognition scores for all groups were better when old  melodies were re-presented in the same key instead of being transposed.

So why does memory for melody improve?

As the authors state, this simple developmental progression likely stems from increased exposure to music, and from cognitive development more generally, including long-term, working, and short-term memory, executive functions, feature binding, and processing speed.

It may sound simple as a conclusion, but we can never assume these kinds of results. Children may have had incredible memory for melody for all we knew! If they had, then you can bet there would have been a possible and plausible explanation for that result too. The fact is the research is telling a story of delay – memory for melody develops significantly in late childhood.

Memory for key seems more stable, at least across the ages of 7 to adulthood.

The authors refer to musical key as ‘pitch level’ and suggest this is an important skill to be acquired earlier on in our developmental journey. For example, it would be an important component of coming to recognise caregivers voices or dangerous/ unpleasant sounds.

This paper is relatively small in terms of power when it comes to both sample size and stimulus presentation however, it does a nice job of differentiating two key musical memory skills (melody and key) across three age groups (7, 11, adult), and thereby showing a divergence in music memory developmental process.