My Life in Music Cognition Research

By Dowling, W. Jay | Psychomusicology, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview
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My Life in Music Cognition Research


Dowling, W. Jay, Psychomusicology


ABSTRACT - The author traces his interest and education in music from childhood through adulthood. He describes the development of ideas about his core work, involving interleaved melodies, auditory attention, memory representation for melody, and "expectancy windows," among other topics. Important ideas, influential teachers, and main collaborators are described from his dissertation work at Harvard to early jobs at UCLA and Cal State L.A., to his position in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at UT Dallas. The author's interest in the development of melody perception stems from observation of his own children. More recent work on memory for melodies and on aging and music cognition is also covered. The article ends with a discussion of changes that have taken place in music psychology over the past 40 years.

I was born in Washington, D. C., on February 4, 1941, and grew up in Northern Virginia where my father taught industrial arts (wood shop, metal shop, drafting, and printing) at Fairfax High School. Both my father and grandfather (my mother's father) played the violin, though my father, who had grown up in upstate New York, referred to what he did as "fiddling." Some of my earliest memories are of him playing dance tunes like Turkey in the Straw and The Irish Washerwoman. My mother played the piano, and Sinding's Rustle of Spring was one of our favorites. It's probably good that I didn't develop absolute pitch, however, because our ancient upright, though it had a good sound, could not be tuned up to standard pitch, and so I grew up listening to a B' piano.

Both my father and grandfather were avid collectors of records, and they each had about 500 or 600 of them. Both of them had extensive collections of Italian opera arias, including Caruso, Tito Schipa, John McCormack, and Jussi Björling. My father's favorite was Martinelli. Both of them were devoted to Fritz Kreisler. Once when I was six or seven, I was playing records at my grandparents' house, and I inadvertently sat on a Gigli "La Donna é Mobile"; of course the lacquer disc was smashed. I was very embarrassed, but I think my grandfather was just relieved that it wasn't something less expendable.

My father's collection differed from my grandfather's in its devotion to Gilbert and Sullivan; he had five or six of the operettas in their massive twelve-disc albums. During the 1940s one of my father's friends, who taught metal shop and who came from somewhere in the Southwest of England, got the high-school faculty and students to put on a Gilbert and Sullivan production, complete with a small orchestra which he would conduct from the piano. The most impressive role my father played was the Chief of Police in The Pirates of Penzance. I remember vividly his billy club - they turned out the billy clubs in wood shop - decorated with the words of his songs, just in case he forgot. ("When the foeman bares his steel ..."). He was also Dick Deadeye in H. M. S. Pinafore, and at least one of my very proper aunts thought that my mother ought not to take me (then four or five) to see my father play such a scruffy character. She did, though, and I enjoyed it immensely.

The most spectacular thing my father did was only indirectly connected to music, however. At the end of the war he learned that the linotype machine from Gen. Patton's headquarters was being sold as surplus in New York, and he pursuaded the school adminstration to acquire it for his print shop. Then he and my mother and I went to New York where he arranged the sale and shipping for the machine, and my mother and I explored the city. Once the large and complicated machine was back in Virginia, he rebuilt it from the bottom up and restored it to working order. Linotype machines, a triumph of ìgth-century technology, have since disappeared from the industrial landscape, but then it was useful to students to know how to operate them. The machines were in some ways dangerous monsters - apt to squirt molten lead at the operator at odd moments - but I always enjoyed watching and listening to them.

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