Musicians' and Nonmusicians' Short-Term Memory for Verbal and Musical Sequences: Comparing Phonological Similarity and Pitch Proximity

By Williamson, Victoria J.; Baddeley, Alan D. et al. | Memory & Cognition, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Musicians' and Nonmusicians' Short-Term Memory for Verbal and Musical Sequences: Comparing Phonological Similarity and Pitch Proximity


Williamson, Victoria J., Baddeley, Alan D., Hitch, Graham J., Memory & Cognition


Language-music comparative studies have highlighted the potential for shared resources or neural overlap in auditory short-term memory. However, there is a lack of behavioral methodologies for comparing verbal and musical serial recall. We developed a visual grid response that allowed both musicians and nonmusicians to perform serial recall of letter and tone sequences. The new method was used to compare the phonological similarity effect with the impact of an operationalized musical equivalent-pitch proximity. Over the course of three experiments, we found that short-term memory for tones had several similarities to verbal memory, including limited capacity and a significant effect of pitch proximity in nonmusicians. Despite being vulnerable to phonological similarity when recalling letters, however, musicians showed no effect of pitch proximity, a result that we suggest might reflect strategy differences. Overall, the findings support a limited degree of correspondence in the way that verbal and musical sounds are processed in auditory short-term memory.

There is a long scientific tradition of examining the similarities between language and music (Darwin, 1871; Patel, 2008). Studying commonalities between how language and musical sounds are processed affords more opportunities to learn about how we interact with the auditory environment than are available from studying either domain in isolation (Callan et al., 2006; Koelsch et al., 2009; Kraus & Banai, 2007; Patel, 2009; Peretz & Zatorre, 2005; Wong, Skoe, Russo, Dees, & Kraus, 2007). In the present article, we compare the serial recall of speech and music from short-term memory.

The first reason for choosing short-term memory for a language-music comparison is that much is known about the operation of auditory-verbal serial recall. For simplicity, we present our studies within a single broad theoretical framework-the multicomponent workingmemory model (Baddeley, 2000; Baddeley & Hitch, 1974)-although we acknowledge that they could be fitted into other frameworks developed to explain processing in short-term memory. The working-memory model comprises an attention-controlling central executive and three subsystems: the phonological loop, the visuospatial sketchpad, and the episodic buffer. The phonological loop is associated with the processing of speechlike information. It comprises a passive phonological store, which acts as a temporary holding center for speech-based information, and an articulatory rehearsal process, during which incoming visual information can be recoded and rehearsed using a phonological code (Baddeley, 2007). In the present research, we question whether the phonological loop also may be capable of processing musical stimuli.

A second reason for focusing the language-music comparison within short-term memory is the importance of verbal short-term memory for a range of higher cognitive abilities. These include the acquisition of vocabulary and grammar (Baddeley, Papagno, & Vallar, 1988; Gathercole & Baddeley, 1990), reading (Baddeley, Gathercole, & Papagno, 1998), and action control (Baddeley, Chincotta, & Adlam, 2001; Liefooghe, Barouillet, Vandierendonck, & Camos, 2008; Miyake et al., 2000). An empirical investigation of language and music processing in shortterm memory therefore has the potential to encourage investigations into the role of musical short-term memory in equivalent domain cognitive abilities (e.g., reading music). There is also the possibility, if evidence for resource sharing can be demonstrated, that music may have a role in a number of important verbal processes, such as those listed above. A link between music skills and phonological awareness has been demonstrated in a number of different populations (Anvari, Trainor, Woodside, & Levy, 2002; J. L. Jones, Lucker, Zalewski, Brewer, & Drayna, 2009; Overy, 2003).

A third reason for our empirical focus is that neuroimaging evidence suggests that a degree of resource sharing occurs during verbal and musical short-term memory tasks. …

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