Improving Students' Memory for Musical Compositions and Their Composers: Mneme That Tune!

By Carney, Russell N.; Levin, Joel R. | College Student Journal, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Improving Students' Memory for Musical Compositions and Their Composers: Mneme That Tune!


Carney, Russell N., Levin, Joel R., College Student Journal


Students enrolled in music appreciation and music history courses may find it difficult to remember composers' names and the titles of their compositions--particularly when retrieval is prompted by corresponding classical music themes. We sought to develop and validate a mnemonic approach in which musical themes were first recoded as more concrete referents, and then meaningfully associated with names and titles. Undergraduates were randomly assigned to either "own best method" or mnemonic conditions in both experiments. In Experiment 1, students associated composers and composition titles. In Experiment 2, students associated musical themes and composers' names (Day 1), and themes, names, and titles (Day 2). In all statistical comparisons, students using the mnemonic approach statistically outperformed corresponding "own best method" control groups. Our positive findings are of special note in Experiment 2, where classical music themes prompted students to identify titles and composers' names. To our knowledge, this is the first research to validate a mnemonic approach of this sort.

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Beginning in 1953, a popular U.S. quiz show asked contestants to "Name That Tune." Contestants rang a bell as soon as they felt they could identify a musical segment performed by a studio orchestra. That show's popularity serves to underscore the fascination we have with the sometimes challenging task of identifying music. Likewise, in academic settings, undergraduates enrolled in music appreciation or music history courses are often required to "name that tune" and to identify the composer on course exams when prompted by selections of music. While popular tunes typically include a verbal component (i.e., memory-facilitating lyrics), classical music usually does not. Thus, making classical-music associations (i.e., music, title, and composer) can be difficult for the beginning student.

In this regard, the mnemonic keyword method (Atkinson, 1975; Higbee, 2001; Ormrod, 2004) may prove helpful to the learner. In the traditional application of this strategy, an unfamiliar word (e.g., lentissimo) is first recoded as an acoustically similar keyword (e.g., lint), and then the keyword is connected to the meaning of the word (e.g., "very slowly") via an interactive image (e.g., "Imagine someone picking lint off of a fuzzy sweater very slowly."). Thus encoded, retrieval proceeds as follows: lentissimo -> lint -> image involving picking off lint very slowly -> very slowly. Research has shown the keyword method to be highly effective in this situation in which an unfamiliar verbal stimulus prompts a response that is already familiar to the learner (e.g., Carney & Levin, 1998a, 1998b; Levin, 1993; Pressley, Levin, & Delaney, 1982).

In one component of the current learning task, both the presented stimulus and the to-be-associated response are unfamiliar. Thus, recoding both terms as keywords (i.e., a dual-keyword approach) is necessary. Take, for example, the composer, Strauss, and his composition "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (performed in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey"). The two verbal elements (i.e., the composer name and the composition title) can be recoded as acoustically similar keywords (e.g., Strauss might be straw, and "Also Sprach Zarathustra" might be Zorro), which are then related by way of an interactive image (e.g., "Imagine Zorro jumping into a pile of straw. He crawls out, and makes his trademark 'Z'."). Thus encoded, the retrieval path proceeds as follows: Also Sprach Zarathustra -> Zorro -> image of Zorro crawling out of straw -> straw -> Strauss. Prior research has shown that a dual-keyword approach can be effective for making associations between unfamiliar verbal elements, such as learning the U. S. states and their capitals (e.g., Levin, Berry, Miller & Bartell, 1982; Levin, Shriberg, Miller, McCormick, & Levin, 1980). Leaving the actual music out of the picture for the present, we sought to validate this approach for associating composition titles and composers' names in Experiment 1. …

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