Ability to process musical pitch is unrelated to the memory advantage for vocal music

Michael W Weiss, Isabelle Peretz
Brain and Cognition 2019, 129: 35-39
Listeners remember vocal melodies better than instrumental melodies, but the origins of the effect are unclear. One explanation for the 'voice advantage' is that general perceptual mechanisms enhance processing of conspecific signals. An alternative possibility is that the voice, by virtue of its expressiveness in pitch, simply provides more musical information to the listener. Individuals with congenital amusia provide a unique opportunity to disentangle the effects of conspecific status and vocal expressiveness because they cannot readily process subtleties in musical pitch. Forty-one participants whose musical pitch discrimination ability ranged from congenitally amusic to typical were tested. Participants heard vocal and instrumental melodies during an exposure phase, and heard the same melodies intermixed with timbre-matched foils in a recognition phase. Memory was better for vocal than instrumental melodies, but the magnitude of the advantage was unrelated to musical pitch discrimination or memory overall. The voice enhances melodic memory regardless of music perception ability, ruling out the role of pitch expressiveness in the voice advantage. More importantly, listeners across a wide range of musical ability can benefit from the privileged status of the voice.

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