New research from UTM finds link between music and memory

Young man with brown hair seated on a black bench beside headphones
Tuesday, April 28, 2015 - 4:19pm
Blake Eligh

New research from U of T Mississauga shows that humans display a preference for the human voice when it comes to creating new musical memories.

A new study by UTM psychology graduate student Michael Weiss provides the first evidence that humans remember vocal and instrumental melodies differently in early childhood than they do in adulthood. Musical timbre—the sound quality that distinguishes different instruments and voices from one another—may play an important role in how our early musical memories are formed.

Earlier research by Weiss and UTM psychology professors Sandra Trehub and Glenn Schellenberg found that adults remember melodies better when sung by the human voice, rather than played on an instrument. Weiss and his coauthors wondered whether they might find the same results with children.

In a study that examined the impact of timbre, and how the human voice affects children’s cognitive processing of melodies, they tested three groups of children: 80 children aged five-to-six and seven-to-eight, and 48 children aged nine-to-11. The children listened to British and Irish folk melodies that were sung (without words) and played on a variety of instruments. The children were tested on how much they liked the melody, and if they thought the melody was new or familiar.

“We expected the older kids would have adult-like responses,” Weiss says. “By nine- to 11-years-old, a lot of one’s musical sensibilities have formed. For the younger kids, it was far less clear what would happen. They have immature memory systems, and some musical aspects, such as harmony and tonal conventions, haven’t really been set in stone for them. They are still learning about the predominant music of their culture.”

The older children (aged nine-to-11) listened to 16 unfamiliar folk melodies played on marimba, piano, banjo and sung aloud. They then listened to the same melodies again, along with 16 similar-sounding tunes, and judged whether each melody was familiar or new. “We found nine-to-eleven-year-olds remembered the vocal melodies better than the instrumental melodies, just as the adults did in the previous study,” Weiss says.

The study was repeated with younger children divided into two groups. The five-to-six-year-old children and seven-to-eight-year-old children were given a simplified version of the test, which included only vocal and piano melodies.

The seven-to-eight-year-old children recognized vocal melodies with better accuracy, while the five-to-six-year-old children were more likely to label the vocal melodies as familiar, regardless of whether or not they had heard the tune before. “The 5- and 6-year-olds showed voice bias,” Weiss says, adding that the youngest group  indicated that they liked vocal melodies less than piano melodies. “This is a little surprising because it means their bias to label the vocal melodies as familiar isn’t caused by them liking the voice more," says Weiss. "Whether the melody was new or old, if the melody was a voice, they usually rated it lower than if they heard it on a piano, and they were biased to think that the vocal melodies were more familiar.”

According to Weiss, the findings present the first evidence that children are more likely to remember vocal melodies versus instrumental songs. The results also reveal age-related improvements in the ability to distinguish recently-heard melodies from new ones.

It’s hard to say exactly why the younger children displayed this bias towards vocal melodies. Weiss says the results are likely related to the relative immaturity of the younger children’s memory system. “We’re looking at whether attention has something to do with this,” he says. “The voice is a biological signal and it's more dynamic than the piano.” He also notes that young childrens’ familiarity bias for vocal melodies may play a role in helping them to learn song melodies and words.

The study was published in the March 2015 edition of Developmental Psychology, and was coauthored by Glenn Schellenberg, Sandra Trehub and research assistant Emily Dawber. The research was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.