Music Psychology,  Musical Expertise

Conference report: The impact of musical expertise

This week I have been to the British Psychological Society (BPS) Cognitive Section conference, thanks to a very helpful bursary from SCONET (UK Social Cognition Network and Training Scheme). The meeting was held at Keele University which is something of a Mecca for music psychology as John Sloboda worked there for many years. As part of the BPS conference, Alex Lamont had organised a symposium called ‘Cognition and Music’, which featured talks by herself, Philip Fine from the University of Buckingham and Cara Featherstone from the University of Leeds.

I decided to travel to Keele the night before the meeting in order to be fresh and ready to go for the 9am conference start. I had a lovely breakfast in the University cafe (I am always very impressed when I can have granary toast!) before heading to the first series of talks that I wished to attend, which were on ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).

ASD is not my field of course, but I enjoy the chance to hear talks in other areas of psychology. These opportunities present a delightful mix of keeping in touch with other mainstream areas of psychology and also being able to enjoy listen without the pressure of thinking ‘this is directly important to my research, I have to take loads of notes!’

I found the three talks to be very interesting, especially work by Jen Mayer, from Goldsmiths. She has found very interesting effects looking at auditory processing in children and adults with ASD and has amassed a great deal of data on one group of people to try to minimise individual/group differences: A great idea, when your field is so heterogeneous.

It made me realise that even after 3 years there are many nice people at my office who I hardly talk to as I am so glued to my computer. Jen used to do a lovely coffee and cake gathering on a Friday as well…I will certainly make a point to make more of an effort outside my office door!

I had lunch with Dan Cameron, one of our current MMB students. He was giving a talk about his work on rhythm processing in the last session of the day, which was excellent. He will soon start a PhD with Jessica Grahn, who is lucky to have him! We chatted about where we were from and the incomprehensible nature of some accents from the UK and the US (Dan is Canadian). Good times.

The music symposium started at 2pm. The focus of the symposium was the nature of expertise, and the differences between cognitive abilities in musicians and nonmusicians. Alex began by outlining the difficulties in defining musicians and nonmusicians. And true to form, all the talks in the symposium used different definitions! The work employed a wide variety of methods including questionnaires, diary studies, behavioural studies, EEG and interviews (analysed with Interpretative Phenemological Analysis – one of my new hobbies!).The findings are summarised for you here:

  • Alex reported no differences in experiences of ‘flow’ between musicians and nonmusicians while listening to music. Musicians may be capable of more focused and analytical listening, thanks to their training, this does not have a significant impact on their ability to ‘get lost in music’ or ‘get in the zone’ while listening to music.
  • Musicians name significantly more music when talking about their regular listening habits, and also that they tend to be more specific with genre labels.
  • Although reasons for listening to music tend to be similar across groups, musicians exhibit more ‘squirrel’ behaviour and nonmusicians more ‘magpie’ behaviour. If you want to know what these labels mean then I invite you to read this paper
  • Philip has uncovered 4 themes that musicians use when describing their understanding of mental practice and score analysis: practical, psychological, music associations and usefulness.
  • Musicians described the context of their activities and the materials and processes involved (practical) as well as the different methods and states of mind that facilitated the experience (psychological).  They also discussed the details of the music upon which they focused, including the composer and his/her goals and intentions (music associations), as well as their own reasons for engaging in mental rehearsal and score analysis (usefulness)
  • Philip concluded that formal analysis is likely to be less practical and useful in preparing for a real performance, as compared to individual strategies for mental rehearsal.
  • Cara looked at sentences with metaphorical incongruities which are known to trigger an N400 effect in ERPs. Her analysis found that this effect was strong in nonmusicians but completely absent in musicians, which is really surprising. She discussed lots of interesting potential mechanisms for her finding but I promised her that I would not to talk about them here until her paper comes out – watch this space!
  • Philip presented a second study looking at accuracy for tempo recall over short (minutes) and long (days) retention intervals. He found that nonmusicians and musicians were equally good at recalling slow and medium tempos over short delays, while musicians fared better at fast tempos. Musicians also did better at all three time delay conditions in the long recall test.

Overall, it was a really fascinating series of talks. Thanks to Alex for organising the symposium and for keeping music psychology at the forefront of cognitive psychology conferences in the UK!

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