The Spring 2010 issue of the Journal of Music Therapy has an interesting article about memory. Dr. Silverman, from the University of Minnesota, was interested in looking at how different combinations of pitch, rhythm and familiarity of a music selection affected working memory and anxiety.
Sixty undergraduate students were asked to recall six nine-digit sequences using the numbers one through ten, but not the number seven. The nine-digit sequences were recorded under different treatment conditions such as the digits paired with pitch only from a familiar melody (e.g., Old MacDonald) or the digits recorded with the rhythm only from a familiar melody, (e.g., Mary Had a Little Lamb.) The other four treatment conditions were: a familiar melody with both pitch and rhythm, an unfamiliar melody with pitch only, an unfamiliar melody with rhythm only and an unfamiliar melody with both pitch and rhythm. Although Dr. Silverman also investigated the anxiety levels of the participants before and after taking the memory tests, he did not find a significant difference in anxiety levels.
The results indicated that recall of the nine-digit sequences was best for the rhythm only condition. Participants actually remembered the least when the digit sequences were paired with only pitch or with pitch and rhythm. Dr. Silverman hypothesizes that working memory can become overloaded with information and does not function as well when more than one stimuli at a time is streaming in. The "rhythm only" treatment condition may have helped the participants to better "chunk" the digits into meaningful and more memorable groups of information, whereas the number sequences paired with pitch or pitch and rhythm together caused an "information overload" in the working memory.
This research may prove highly useful in a variety of settings. I think that when a music therapist does an assessment, for example, it might be a good idea to try a variety of interventions including the "rhythm only" method rather than only trying to use pitch, preference and rhythm together at the same time. Songs may become a memory aid over time after information is committed to long term memory, but using rhythm to aid in short term memory may provide a good evaluation of a client's response to music. Sometimes music therapists only get one chance to do an assessment with a client, so every successful response to music regarding non-musical goals is an important part of the assessment's conclusion and determination of recommendation.
I also think that this new information about rhythm and memory can be a powerful tool to use during behavior modification. There are many times when a client with autism or cognitive delays will benefit from performing something successful in a short amount of time in order to benefit from positive reinforcement. Perhaps using simple and familiar rhythms to teach key information would be the best approach to helping the client use working memory to respond appropriately and then receive a reward.
Just don't let advertisers get a hold of this new research or we might see a lot more impulse buying!
Silverman, M. J. (2010). The effect of pitch, rhythm, and familiarity on working memory and anxiety as measured by digit recall performance. Journal of Music Therapy, 47, (1), 70-83.