Dissociation of Musical Tonality and Pitch Memory from Nonmusical Cognitive Abilities

By Steinke, W R; Cuddy, L L et al. | Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, December 1997 | Go to article overview
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Dissociation of Musical Tonality and Pitch Memory from Nonmusical Cognitive Abilities


Steinke, W R, Cuddy, L L, Holden, R R, Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology


Abstract The main purposes of this study were to replicate, validate, and extend measures of sensitivity to musical pitch and to determine whether performance on tests of tonal structure and pitch memory was related to, or dissociated from, performance on tests of nonmusical cognitive skills -- standardized tests of cognitive abstraction, vocabulary, and memory for digits and nonrepresentational figures. Factor analyses of data from 100 neurologically intact participants revealed a dissociation between music and nonmusic variables, both for the full data set and a set for which the possible contribution of levels of music training was statistically removed. A neurologically impaired participant, C.N., scored within the range of matched controls on nonmusic tests but much lower than controls on music tests. The study provides further evidence of a functional specificity for musical pitch abilities.

How various types of cognitive abilities are related, and further, how musical abilities are related to other abilities are questions with both a long history and current importance in cognitive psychology and the psychology of music. Music listening and performance engage a variety of processing levels - from elementary sensory-motor encoding to higher-level relational and symbolic representations. Music perception and cognition invite comparisons to other perceptual and cognitive processes, both in terms of commonalities and of differences.

For example, both music and speech are highly structured forms of communication processed by the auditory system. It has been suggested that precocious abilities in music and speech emerge from common origins (e.g., Davidson & Scripp, 1988; Lynch, Short, & Chua, 1995; Trehub & Trainor, 1993). Warren (1993) remarks that "our use of speech and our production and enjoyment of music are based on an elaboration of global organizational skills possessed by our prelinguistic ancestors" (p. 64). Bigand (1993) comments on general cognitive constraints influencing not only hierarchical organization in music and speech but symbolic processing in general.

However, the ongoing search for and description of functional music modules (e.g., Deliege, 1995) illustrates concern for the differentiation of musical abilities from one another and from other cognitive abilities. Distinct neurological processes revealed by brain electrical activity (e.g., Besson, 1997), cerebral blood flow patterns measured with positron emission tomography (e.g., Zatorre, Evans, & Meyer, 1994; Zatorre, Halpern, Perry, Meyer, & Evans, 1996), and patterns of dissociation found in neurologically compromised individuals (e.g., Patel & Peretz, 1997) indicate mental operations specific to the domain of music. Taken together, therefore, accounts of both integration and differentiation have been proposed. A further illustration, one of the earliest and most pertinent to the present study, concerns the relation of music and intelligence.

Music and intelligence

Earlier in this century, Spearman (1904, 1927) concluded that music shared the common g or general function with all other branches of intellectual activity, but allowed that a specific music factor s was operating in its own right. Within the next few decades, researchers identified a music group factor beyond g, but as Vernon (1950) noted, the factor was poor in reliability. Moreover, no consistent sub-grouping of musical factors such as pitch, rhythm, and tonal memory was found.

Subsequent studies, however, continued to provide encouragement for the notion that musical abilities were separable from general intelligence. Shuter-Dyson and Gabriel (1981) summarized a large number of studies (involving some 16,000 participants) that examined the relations between intelligence and musical abilities as measured by standard musical aptitude tests assessing a wide variety of musical skills. All reported correlations, though positive, were low.

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