The Influence of Culture on
Music Memory Performance
The ability to remember music is supported by a listener’s ability to comprehend–to make organizational sense of–the music heard. Through a life-long process of informal learning (enculturation), individuals develop musical knowledge that is attuned to the styles, norms and structures of the prevailing musical culture. In what ways might we observe the distinction between music-culture “insider” and “outsider”? An ongoing series of studies at the MCCL is examining listeners’ performance on a music memory test as one means of revealing the extent of one’s music comprehension. To date we have reported significantly better memory performance for culturally familiar music across multiple cultural groups, music styles, levels of music complexity, experience levels and ages. Current studies are investigating the relative importance of isolated structural aspects (e.g., intervalic regularity) of music examples in allowing listeners access to culturally-situated music information.
There is a growing body of research on the interaction of auditory and
visual information in music perception. We are interested in exploring the extent to which pairing culturally unfamiliar music with visual information of various kinds might influence listener’s memory for that music either positively, by providing information that clarifies structural characteristics of the music, or negatively, by increasing the complexity of the stimulus.
Previous research has indicated that there is an “enculturation effect” in music memory performance. Listeners are less able to recall novel music from an unfamiliar culture, than novel examples from their own culture. It is not clear whether such effects are due to specific properties of the stimulus such as timbre or tuning or to other factors such as preference. Research in Western music has demonstrated that a listener’s preference for a type of music can actually influence the ability to remember the music effectively. Is the enculturation effect a reflection of culturally based schema for music perception, or is it merely a reflection of listener’s preference for culturally familiar music? How might encultured responses be affected if contextual variables were removed to the point that all examples had an identical timbre and tuning, perhaps even rhythm? We are exploring the interaction of culture, context and preference in listeners’ memory responses to music of various cultures.