Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Semantic Priming of Familiar Songs

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Semantic Priming of Familiar Songs

Article excerpt

Abstract We explored the functional organization of semantic memory for music by comparing priming across familiar songs both within modalities (Experiment 1, tune to tune; Experiment 3, category label to lyrics) and across modalities (Experiment 2, category label to tune; Experiment 4, tune to lyrics). Participants judged whether or not the target tune or lyrics were real (akin to lexical decision tasks). We found significant priming, analogous to linguistic associativepriming effects, in reaction times for related primes as compared to unrelated primes, but primarily for within-modality comparisons. Reaction times to tunes (e.g., "Silent Night") were faster following related tunes ("Deck the Hall") than following unrelated tunes ("God Bless America"). However, a category label (e.g., Christmas) did not prime tunes from within that category. Lyrics were primed by a related category label, but not by a related tune. These results support the conceptual organization of music in semantic memory, but with potentially weaker associations across modalities.

Keywords Music . Priming . Semantic memory . Categorization

Music is a highly compelling and pervasive aspect of the lives of most individuals. Not surprisingly, music also represents a well-ingrained portion of our semantic memory-most people can attest to having a store of countless songs in their memory, most of which are without clear episodic origin (Bartlett & Snelus, 1980). Despite this fact, few studies have explored the organization of musical semantic memory. Here we explored the conceptual organization of music using a priming paradigm, with the expectation that priming would occur across songs from within a shared musical category (e.g., Christmas songs). In a series of four experiments, we explored acrosssong priming of tunes and lyrics, in relation to each other and to their categorical labels.

The expectation of priming across songs was motivated by early work that revealed the robustness with which people cluster songs into thematic groupings. Halpern (1984a) investigated two possible ways that people may categorize songs in semantic memory: one based on musical similarity, the other based on nonmusical similarity. Participants were asked to sort the titles of familiar tunes according to first one, then the other, type of similarity. Clustering results from both methods yielded solutions based more on thematic or conceptual dimensions than on melodic aspects. Thus, the organization of memory for songs can be described in a way that parallels descriptions of other aspects of semantic memory.

Other evidence strengthens this general conclusion; for example, Schulkind (2004) noted a high rate of genre confusions in his study of identification of familiar melodies. These thematic-based errors were nearly as common as phrasing/meter errors, although the latter were substantially more relevant to the participants' task. As Schulkind pointed out, the large number of phrasing/meter errors implicates a role for musical organization in semantic memory-that is, for organization based on aspects of melody such as key, rhythm, and meter. However, the musical aspects of the semantic organization of songs may be less prevalent in situations in which the task does not immediately demand judgments based on those features. Under less constrained task conditions, the conceptual features may govern the way that we use our semantic memory for songs.

The presence of errors of a semantic nature, even when it was not necessary to process this dimension of the music in order to complete the task (Schulkind, 2004), is suggestive of automatic semantic processing. A more direct way to explore the nature and automaticity of the associations between songs, as well as between the different components of songs (lyrics, melodies, genres, etc.), is via priming. For example, Peretz, Radeau, and Arguin (2004) used priming to explore the automatic activation between the musical and lyrical components of songs. …

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