Congenital amusia

A lecture on amusia

This week I was invited to give a lecture at my old Uni. The University of York remains a fantastic place to study psychology with some of the most knowledgeable academics I have ever met. Many of them were sweet enough to come to my talk to see what I had been up to since I left York in 2008. I even got some lovely hugs, which made my day 🙂

The day before the talk, as I travelled up  north on the train, I was hugely nervous. There is a unique type of anxiety associated with going back to your old Uni to give a talk in a room where you once sat in lectures for six years. I also felt a weight of expectation on my shoulders. All my past teachers would be there, my mentors. As would Dr Marcel Zentner, who I have written about in the past in this blog. I did not want to let any of them down.

I also had other business in York. Three of my Music, Mind and Brain masters students had travelled up from London to meet with their other dissertation supervisors; my PhD supervisors Professors Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch. We had a great meeting discussing the students’ ideas and Alan and Graham offered lots of advice on conducting memory experiments. I know I am biased but anyone who has studied psychology will understand when I say that this advice is the best available!

The meeting went very well and we chatted happily for nearly 2 hours before we had to stop – my talk was due to start in 15 minutes…

I spent the last few minutes before the talk quietly reviewing my slides for a final time. My advice when preparing a talk is to spend the last few reviews just making sure that you are happy that you have at least one thing to say about each point and checking little things like spelling. Personally, I find that looking at this level of detail has a nice way of making sure I don’t focus too much on the ‘big picture’, which is getting on that stage and talking.

In my experience it is certainly not a good idea to start deleting things at this point as you probably have a good idea of what you are going to say and last minute changes can throw off your preparations.

I made my way to the hall and set up my slides, making sure that my sounds a) worked and b) would not deafen anyone. In the end, of course, two of the sound files in the presentation didn’t work…even though they had worked every single time in rehearsal. Isn’t that always the way?!

That is another good tip for talks: Never rely on embedded video or sounds. Work on the assumption that it would be ‘nice’ if these types of files worked, but ensure that you have a back-up in case they fail. What I usually do is put the files on the desktop before I start the talk. Then you have the option to duck out of your slides for a moment and play them if you really need to do so.

Here are my slides for you, dear reader. I hope you enjoy them!

The talk was essentially a 45 minute review of the last three years of my life studying congenital amusia with my boss Dr Lauren Stewart. I covered our studies of pitch perception, pitch memory, speech detection, visuo-spatial skills, and melodic expectancy.

Sitting now in a cafe in York station I can say that I really appreciated the chance to give this talk. Lauren and I have just completed her three year amusia grant and the lecture was an opportunity to summarise all the things we have worked on together, alongside other super members of the lab group.

I can’t believe I have been in London for 3 and a half years now. It seems only yesterday that I handed in my PhD and stepped onto a one way train to London. But I am very glad that I found the Music, Mind and Brain group at Goldsmiths and that Lauren decided to take me on as a postdoc.

This seems a very appropriate moment for me to express my gratitude for all she has done for me so far. Thanks Boss.

It has been a fantastic three years. Full of highs and a couple of lows, but I certainly feel like we have learned a huge amount about amusia, met some wonderful people and learned some important lessons on my quest to be an academic. As my grandma puts it, to one day have a real job!

What now, dear reader? Well, the talk marked the end of one era in a way but the next chapter is already underway. I am currently working as a temporary lecturer at Goldsmiths and co-director of the masters course in Music, Mind and Brain, as maternity cover for Lauren. Come June, she will return and we will begin another 3 year grant in a new field; earworms.

This does not mean that the amusia work is over by any means. I have several ideas for future projects that can be run with our wonderful assistants or master students, and, at the lecture, someone suggest another really fascinating new experiment. The story of amusia here will continue…


  • Robert Harper

    Earworms or how to annoy co-workers without really trying! While working in a calibration lab in the USAF my co-worker from another section would wander through our section whistling little tunes, the worst being Kiora theme tune. Sure as the sun sets in the west it would be planted and slowly infest our mind as the tune would go around and around. It would start out some what sub-consiously but after a while, after it was firmly set and you suddenly realised it was stuck, it would begin to be an annoyance, much to my co-workers amusement (he was a Sergeant but retired as a Lt. Col.). As I have a rather wide musical catalog in my head I would try to replace it by singing/humming a song I liked. Most times worked but Kiora is indestructible. Even now, 28 years later, I still get recurrances of “I’ll be your dog”. Have to admit that I have unleashed it just as effectively on other people over the years but only on those who ‘deserved’ it.

  • Diana Hereld

    Hi Vicky!

    Thanks so much for this, and especially being so gracious as to share your slides. I actually had an inquiry to my blog last night regarding a child with congenital amusia who loves to sing very much. She is interested in taking lessons from me, if it will be beneficial. I immediately thought of you, so I appreciate you’ve shared so much on the blog! Forgive me if I’ve overlooked it, but do you know of many experiences of teachers being even mildly successful in voice lessons with this population? I’m not up to date on the most current research. It’s certainly an undertaking, but I have a mind to (in the very least) meet with the family, as they are based locally.