Testing the Absolute-Tempo Hypothesis: Context Effects for Familiar and Unfamiliar Songs

By Rashotte, Matthew A.; Wedell, Douglas H. | Memory & Cognition, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Testing the Absolute-Tempo Hypothesis: Context Effects for Familiar and Unfamiliar Songs


Rashotte, Matthew A., Wedell, Douglas H., Memory & Cognition


Published online: 28 June 2014

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract In two experiments, we investigated context effects on tempo judgments for familiar and unfamiliar songs performed by popular artists. In Experiment 1, participants made comparative tempo judgments to a remembered standard for song clips drawn from either a slow or a fast context, created by manipulating the tempos of the same songs. Although both familiar and unfamiliar songs showed significant shifts in their points of subjective equality toward the tempo context values, more-familiar songs showed significantly reduced contextual bias. In Experiment 2, tempo pleasantness ratings showed significant context effects in which the ordering of tempos on the pleasantness scale differed across contexts, with the most pleasant tempo shifting toward the contextual values, an assimilation of ideal points. Once again, these effects were significant but reduced for the more-familiar songs. The moderating effects of song familiarity support a weak version of the absolute-tempo hypothesis, in which long-term memory for tempo reduces but does not eliminate contextual effects. Thus, although both relative and absolute tempo information appear to be encoded in memory, the absolute representation may be subject to rapid revision by recently experienced tempo-altered versions of the same song.

Keywords Music cognition * Context effects * Memory * Judgment

Music can reward listeners by creating the paradoxical experience of hearing something novel and familiar at the same time (Marcus, 2012). For instance, the famous four-note introduction to Beethoven's 5th Symphony is repeated throughout and becomes very familiar to the listener, but the experience also contains novelty when heard across different notes and tempi. In the popular-music domain, a sense of familiarity is generated by hearing the same melody over and over throughout the song, whereas novelty is generated by hearing different lyrics or instruments over the familiar melody. These experiences suggest that listeners have access to information in long-term memory that describes the absolute and relative features of music. Absolute features include absolute pitch, tempo, and timbre. Relative features include interval and contour information. Accessing interval and contour information plays an integral role in the experience of music. For instance, relative codes allow listeners to recognize songs such as Happy Birthday and Here Comes the Bride when they are played at novel tempi, pitches, or timbres. Evidence for the relative coding of music in long-term memory was established long ago by early researchers in music cognition (Attneave & Olson, 1971; Cuddy & Cohen, 1976; Dowling & Bartlett, 1981; Sloboda, 1985).

The degree to which long-term memory for music also includes fine-grained details such as absolute pitch and tempo values has also been a topic of scientific investigation. For instance, Levitin (1994) and Levitin and Cook (1996) found evidence that pitch and tempo are stored in great detail in listeners without extensive musical training. Levitin and Cook asked participants to sing from memory some of their favorite rock songs that they had not heard for at least several days. Most of the singing performances were fairly accurate, with 72 % of the participants being within 4 % of the original tempo. The researchers argued that these results supported an absolute-tempo hypothesis, according to which "long-term memory for tempo is very accurate and is near the discrimination threshold (as measured by [just noticeable differences] JND's) for variability in tempo" (p. 931). Levitin analyzed these same song reproductions for pitch accuracy and found that 67 % of the reproductions were within two semitones of the original version, suggesting that 10.3758/s13421-014-0434-x

pitches are also represented in long-term memory by absolute encoding. However, Moelants, Styns, and Leman (2006) challenged this interpretation, suggesting instead that participants chose songs that closely fit their vocal range, which improved their chances of reproducing the pitches heard on the recording. …

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