Academic journal article Psychomusicology

Auditory and Verbal Memory in North Indian Tabla Drumming

Academic journal article Psychomusicology

Auditory and Verbal Memory in North Indian Tabla Drumming

Article excerpt

A pertinent theme in the study of auditory cognition is the extent to which there is overlap in the cognitive mechanisms involved in the parsing of musical structures and language (see, Bigand, Delbé, Poulin-Charronnat, Leman, & Tillmann, 2014; Koelsch, 2009; Patel, 2008; Williamson, Baddeley, & Hitch, 2010). Short-term memory (STM) is a crucial mechanism for the processing of both music and speech. It is responsible for the storage of sensory and categorical information over time spans of roughly 1-30 s (Baddeley, 2012; Jonides et al., 2008), and thus allows for the integration of strings of words into phrases and sentences, as well as the detection of repetition and variation in musical phrases. Whether STM is a "blank-slate"-type of buffer or affected by the long-term familiarity of stimuli has been intensively discussed in the verbal domain (see, Baddeley, 2012; Cowan, 2008; Thorn & Page, 2008), but research that has directly compared memory for verbal and musical materials has remained scarce.

In the current study, we investigated whether familiarity facilitates auditory short-term serial recognition of sequences composed of vocal or drum sounds. We explored the example of the tabla, a pair of hand drums that is an integral part of North Indian classical music. Its tradition incorporates vocalizations that closely correspond to drum strokes, and thus allows for an ecologically relevant comparison between memory for verbal and instrumental acoustic stimuli. At the same time, tabla music is unknown to many western musicians such that we were able to recruit a truly "naïve" control group of participants, which we compared with a group of tabla students. The example of tabla therefore seems to be well suited to explore the role of long-term experience in the short-term matching of sound sequences, as well as potential differences between memory for speech and musical sequences.

The North Indian Tabla

Tabla is among the most versatile instruments in North Indian music. With its great timbral variety, it can be performed solo, in dance accompaniment (kathak), or to accompany melodic instruments such as the sitar, violin, or voice. There are six primary gharanas, that is, stylistic schools that may differ in technique, terminology, and pronunciation (Gottlieb, 1993; Shepherd, 1976). Here we draw from the Benares gharana, the tabla lineage that originated in Varanasi. For the sake of consistency, we denote the drums according to the terminology most commonly used by exponents of the Benares gharana, that is, dahinä and bayañ for the smaller and larger drum, respectively, romanized according to the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST). Other common names for the drums include dayan or tabla for the small drum and baya or bayan for the larger drum.

Comprising repertoire made up of a multitude of cyclic and cadential compositional forms, tabla has traditionally been taught through a primarily oral tradition (Saxena, 2008). Compositions are usually memorized via a system of bols that constitute a solfège system for tabla.1 Using bols, the sounds of both drums can be expressed either individually or when two sounds are produced at once, simultaneously. As summarized by Shepherd (1976), "The bol is an aid to memory and not a means of notating tabla strokes exactly. Each stroke on the tabla has one or more corresponding bols. The tabla bol does not require the lips to touch and therefore can be spoken at great speed. In fact the recitation of composition is an art practiced in itself." (p. 279).

Tabla vocables have been described as a case of onomatopoeia or verbal sound symbolism (Patel & Iversen, 2003).2 It is important to emphasize, however, that the mapping between bols and tabla sounds may vary across schools, and even more importantly, is not always one-to-one. In the Benares gharana, the relation is dependent on the musical context: Multiple bols may denote the same stroke, but one and the same bol may also refer to different strokes (see Table 1 for examples). …

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