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Friday, May 13, 2011

Music and memory: Experiences in the life of the mind

2:17 PM :: 3472 Views

Of the many extraordinary opportunities students have at Le Moyne, one of the most significant is the potential for collaborative research with faculty. In these projects, undergraduate students share ideas and background reading with individual faculty members. Students conduct literature searches, formulate hypotheses, and design experiments. They administer research, make evidence-based inferences, and analyze results. Psychology Honors student Christina Nicolais illustrates the fruits of these remarkable collaborations.

From the early seeds of intuition through the presentation of findings, Nicolais acts essentially as an equal partner with her advisor, Dr. Monica Sylvia. The two designed an experiment to measure the impact of music on listening skills, specifically on comprehension and memory. Their Fall 2010 project “Setting the Tone: Does Music Tonality and Musical Training Impact Listening Comprehension?” was accepted for presentation at the Association of Psychological Science in May. Nicolais will be listed as first author on the paper, Dr. Sylvia notes with pride.

Nicolais wondered how the human brain devotes resources to competing tasks, for example, listening to music and listening to a speaking voice. As a psychology major and a vocalist, she came naturally to the topic. While conducting the literature review, she noticed that scholars disagree on the issue of the impact of music on musicians. She was determined to contribute to this debate.

“There is so much music in the background in everyday life,” she notes. “I wanted to understand its effect, and specifically, its effect on those of us who are musicians. For instance, as a musician, am I able to understand songs more, and if so, does music affect me differently than it affects people who are not musicians?”

During Fall 2010, nearly eighty participants listened to a recording of Nicolais reading a short story. For one group, the only sound was her voice reading the story. Two other groups heard an additional auditory component: background music varying by tonality. Over half of the participants were musicians, persons with five years or more of formal musical training. Thirty-six non-musicians were asked to listen to one of three short stories selected from an informal reading inventory for their mood neutrality. In the background, each text was accompanied by tonal music, atonal music, or silence. Then, participants completed a listening comprehension quiz. Analysis of mean comprehension scores suggests that the tonality of background music impacts the processing of both trained and untrained musicians similarly. Tonal background music seems to interfere the most with one’s ability to accurately remember details from a given story.

Nicolais has the opportunity to test her ideas before an audience of practicing scholars, participating in the flow of knowledge that connects scholars across campuses, cities, and nations. She shared her findings with the campus community, along with all of Le Moyne’s Honors students, during the annual Scholars Day on April 16, 2011.


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