Song Is More Memorable Than Speech Prosody: Discrete Pitches Aid Auditory Working Memory

Researcher: Felix Haiduk, University of Vienna

In this interview, Felix Haiduk discusses the fascinating differences between song and speech and how those differences can affect the way we remember information. Read his paper in Frontiers in Psychologyopen in new window and check out his thoughts about using Labvanced for this research.

What motivated you to look into this area of research?

I started becoming interested in music with joining a choir, and later in language with performing in a theater. At some point I started to wonder why we as humans have both of these complex systems, language as well as music. They are similar and different at the same time, using for example the same vocal output system but in different ways.

Can you please describe the research design and how you set up the experiment?

My advisor asked me to come up with specific questions related to my interest in music and ideas about how we could study cognition related to that. One idea had to do with memory: often it seems easier to remember a song than to remember a bit of speech or text. So we came up with a memory task where participants had to judge whether a vocal sequence changed or remained the same upon hearing it a second time. These sequences could be song-like, consisting of discrete pitches, or speech-like, consisting of gliding pitches, but were otherwise the same.

Tell us about your conclusion and the implications of that.

We found indeed that participants remembered the sequences better when they were song-like rather than speech-like, independent of their musical background. So we concluded that the discreteness of pitch, that is a reduced set of possible tones, is in itself sufficient to enhance memory for vocal sequences. This is a feature of music that can be found across cultures, so it could be that we need it for music-making to work in the first place. People often do music together simultaneously, so remembering a tune or how a song might continue is crucial to make the music work.

But it could also be used to remember not only the music itself, but other things we encounter or do. In everyday situations we might use this in combination with actions we perform. Say you’re leaving the apartment and you can’t remember if you turned off the washing machine. You might be able to remember that you were singing a particular song while you turned it off, which is easier than trying to remember an action alone. It’s about combining modalities of memory and communication, using more senses to store that information.

I think they do this in kindergartens and elementary schools, they teach kids songs to remember what they are learning. Why don’t we continue this as adults? It seems to work pretty well in children, so maybe this research can motivate us to continue this through higher ages to help our memory. And to be more playful in general.

What are your next steps with this research?

We have conducted a follow-up study that we are working on, where we want to see whether music helps or hinders remembering words. A bit like what's done in the kindergartens.

But we also recently published a paper that puts this research in a greater context. Discrete pitches are only one of several features where music and language seem to differ or have a different focus. We propose that these feature differences appear because music and language require different ways of social interaction and of predicting how a vocal or gestural sequence will continue.

We also consider somehow intermediate things like poetry or chanting. I think the way to go is to go beyond the auditory-vocal modality and include the whole body, for example gestures like in sign language and movement such as dance.

And to consider animal communication. If we have speech and song, then what are birds doing when they tweet, chirp and sing? How is their communication different, or how is it similar to ours? Great apes use vocalizations and gestures. If we know better what animals are doing we might in turn learn a lot about what it is we are doing. . It is incredible to look at all the different ways of communication that exist.

What is also important is that we look into these questions across different cultures. We tend to get stuck in this “WEIRD” bubble (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) of researchers and participants and miss out on so many other people that could participate and conduct research. That is why online is promising as well, we can take research outside of our departmental lab settings and make it more accessible, at least for people that have internet access.

Do you see online research as the future of your field?

Yes, definitely. There are currently two main categories of research: in-lab and field work. Online research is now a new, third category that I think really complements the other two. It is really a benefit for convenience and fast data collection.

How did you choose Labvanced for your research?

The pandemic was really the factor here. We planned to do this follow-up study in person, but during the pandemic a colleague came and recommended Labvanced.

What stands out to you about Labvanced?

The collaboration aspect with the study library and the convenience of the crowdsourcing feature. Recording lots of subjects efficiently is super helpful.

What would you recommend to students hoping to begin research in your field?

Stay curious, find people who share your interests, but don’t be afraid to look outside your field for other connections. In academia, we find there is a lot of pressure to “publish or perish,” which leads to a stressful environment. You see your peers doing new and exciting research and feel like you are not meeting that standard, but they are thinking the same thing about you.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to those colleagues and talk about those challenges. It’s okay to make mistakes, they are part of learning and getting better. We should focus more on collaborating and building each other up.

Do you have a message to share with other Labvanced users?

Check out the public library of studies.open in new window Find research that you are interested in and contact those researchers. Ask them what went right for them, as well as what went wrong. It is good to make mistakes and learn from them, as well as learning from other people’s mistakes. Use that community to see what other people are doing and explore lots of interests!