Characterizing Short-Term Memory for Musical Timbre

Kai Siedenburg & Stephen McAdams

Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT), Schulich School of Music, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada
Wednesday, December 11, 2013 at 12:00pm
560 Evans Hall

Short-term memory is a cognitive faculty central for the apprehension of music and speech. Only little is known, however, about memory for musical timbre despite its “sisterhood” with speech; after all, speech can be regarded as sequencing of vocal timbre. Past research has isolated many characteristic effects of verbal memory. Are these also in play for non-vocal timbre sequences? We studied this question by considering short-term memory for serial order. Using timbres and dissimilarity data from McAdams et al. (Psych. Research, 1995), we employed a same/different discrimination paradigm. Experiment 1 (N = 30 MU + 30 nonMU) revealed effects of sequence length and timbral dissimilarity of items, as well as an interaction of musical training and pitch variability: in contrast to musicians, non-musicians’ performance was impaired by simultaneous changes in pitch, compared to a constant pitch baseline. Experiment 2 (N = 22) studied whether musicians’ memory for timbre sequences was independent of pitch irrespective of the degree of complexity of pitch progressions. Comparing sequences with pitch changing within and across standard and comparison to a constant pitch baseline, performance was now clearly impaired for the variable pitch condition. Experiment 3 (N = 22) showed primacy and recency effects for musicians, and reproduced a positive effect of timbral heterogeneity of sequences. Our findings demonstrate the presence of hallmark effects of verbal memory such as similarity, word length, primacy/recency for the domain of non-vocal timbre, and suggest that memory for speech and non- vocal timbre sequences might to a large extent share underlying mechanisms.