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Enhanced processing of vocal melodies in childhood

Michael W Weiss, E Glenn Schellenberg, Sandra E Trehub, Emily J Dawber
Developmental Psychology 2015, 51 (3): 370-7
Music cognition is typically studied with instrumental stimuli. Adults remember melodies better, however, when they are presented in a biologically significant timbre (i.e., the human voice) than in various instrumental timbres (Weiss, Trehub, & Schellenberg, 2012). We examined the impact of vocal timbre on children's processing of melodies. In Study 1, 9- to 11-year-olds listened to 16 unfamiliar folk melodies (4 each of voice, piano, banjo, or marimba). They subsequently listened to the same melodies and 16 timbre-matched foils, and judged whether each melody was old or new. Vocal melodies were recognized better than instrumental melodies, which did not differ from one another, and the vocal advantage was consistent across age. In Study 2, 5- to 6-year-olds and 7- to 8-year-olds were tested with a simplified design that included only vocal and piano melodies. Both age groups successfully differentiated old from new melodies, but memory was more accurate for the older group. The older children recognized vocal melodies better than piano melodies, whereas the younger children tended to label vocal melodies as old whether they were old or new. The results provide the first evidence of differential processing of vocal and instrumental melodies in childhood.


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