Music & Memory

Musicians’ memories in sound

During my PhD I became interested in how musicians are able to ‘filter out’ sounds during a performance – to listen to other players at the same time as focus on their own sound. I also read an article that suggested musicians are able to perform a similar feat when they are memorising music – background sound did not seem to have as disruptive an effect as we might expect to see when performing a memory tas.

The irrelevant sound effect is a fairly robust memory phenomenon that has been used numerous times in research as a model for how our memories encode and process different sounds. One issue that has been explored using this paradigm is whether our memory processes different sounds separately or in a similar way. For background research on this topic I recommend articles by colleagues such as Alan Baddeley and Dylan Jones.

I decided to approach this question from a musical stand point – as I do with many questions in life! I wanted to know how a different background sounds affected musicians memories of both musical and verbal sounds. Was there a difference is the degree of disruption caused by different sounds? Was one type of memory better than another at resisting irrelevant sounds? All these questions seemed ripe for an experiment.

The problem was I was jolly busy with my PhD at the time! I needed help if I was going to pull this off. So I turned to SEMPRE (Society for Society for Education, Music and Psychology Research) and they provided me with a grant from the Arnold Bentley New Initiatives Fund: Enough to pay for a research assistant over the summer to help build and run the experiment. And lucky me, I came across my first lovely RA in the form of Tom Mitchell, who is now doing his PhD at Aberdeen. Tom was an absolute star, as he tirelessly prepared all the sounds for the experiment and ran all the tests himself. Without him the project would not have happened.

Intro: Our article based on this research project just appeared this month in the journal ‘Psychology of Music’.

In the article we used the Visual-Auditory paradigm (V-A paradigm; Schendel and Palmer, 2007) where participants are presented with a visual representation of the stimulus to-be remembered, followed by an interval where they must try to keep it in mind, then an auditory stimulus. They are asked if the auditory stimulus was the same or different to the visual stimulus they saw initially. The paradigm makes use of audiation – the ability to turn a visual stimulus into a sound for the purpose of rehearsal in memory. This is something we do everyday with language when we are reading, but only musicians can read music so only they could do an experiment of this kind with both musical and verbal materials.

Method: We had two groups of 16 musicians – one did the language version of the memory experiment and one did the musical. Each person had their memory tested in four conditions – the interval between V and A presentation was filled with either silence, white noise, irrelevant speech (numbers spoken by 3 different talkers) or irrelevant tones (three different instruments). In the end we found that memory not disrupted by sound in general, as white noise had no effect compared to a silent interval. The main disruption effects were stimulus specific – Irrelevant music impacted on musical memory, while irrelevant speech impacted on verbal memory.

Figure from the paper

Conclusion: So in the end it seems that musicians’ memories are very good at resisting sounds unless they are similar to the sounds they are trying to remember. So our auditory memories are, at some point, stimulus specific for language and music. Where this occurs in memory, separate stores or just a process during encoding, is yet to be determined.

Thanks go to all our speakers who provided voices, all our participants, the York National Centre for Early Music who also provided help with participant recruitment, Zach Schendel for providing advice and sound samples, Paul McLaughlin and Padraig Kitterick for helping with the computer programs and finally our helpful reviewers.