RTRL.49: Memory for Culturally Unfamiliar Music (Morrison et al., 2013)


Morrison, S. J., Demorest, S. M., Campbell, P. S., Bartolome, S. J., & Roberts, J. C. (2013). Effects of intensive instruction on elementary students’ memory for culturally unfamiliar music. Journal of Research in Music Education, 60(4), 363-374.

What did the researchers want to know?

Does instruction improve memory for culturally unfamiliar music?

What did the researchers do?

Morrison and colleagues used a quasi-experimental design to study 110 students in six fifth-grade classes at two elementary schools. At the beginning of the study, all students completed a music memory test in which they heard examples of culturally familiar (Western) and culturally unfamiliar (Turkish) music. For each type of music, students listened to a longer excerpt (25-33 sec.) and then were asked to listen to 12 shorter excerpts (4-8 sec.) and answer whether or not they had heard each in the longer excerpt. 

Four classes were randomly assigned to experience 8 weeks of instruction in Turkish music. The unit consisted of “singing, moving, playing instruments, and listening, with an emphasis on music literacy and cultural context” (p. 367). This included lessons on Turkish culture and a culminating experience in which Turkish culture bearers demonstrated instruments, discussed musical traditions, and answered questions. Students in the two control classes experienced similar lessons but with English, East African, and Appalachian music instead of Turkish.

After the 8-week instructional unit, students completed the listening test again. Morrison et al. used a multivariate repeated-measures ANOVA to analyze differences in students’ pretest and posttest scores.

What did the researchers find?

Results indicated that all participants’ scores for both Western and Turkish music improved from pretest to posttest. However, all students more accurately remembered Western music than Turkish music on both the pretest and posttest. Furthermore, students who experienced the 8-week instructional unit on Turkish music did not remember Turkish music more accurately than students who had not experienced the unit.

What does this mean for my classroom?

If we consider memory as an indicator of music comprehension, the results of this study would suggest that experiencing culturally unfamiliar music does not increase students’ comprehension of that music after 8 weeks. This has several implications:

  • Hannon and Trehub (2005) found that, while adults’ ability to discriminate between examples of Balkan music was unchanged after 1-2 weeks of listening, infants’ ability to do so improved after 2 weeks of exposure to Balkan music. Along with the findings of the Morrison et al. study, this suggests that exposure to a variety of musics should occur as early as possible in a child’s life. 
  • Eight weeks is a relatively short period of time, and students only received 30 minutes of instruction each week. It is possible that more extensive exposure could result in greater recognition/comprehension.
  • That students who experienced instruction in Turkish music did not show improved aural comprehension of Turkish music may have been a result of the nature of the instruction itself. Morrison et al. did not provide specific details as to how the instructional experiences were designed to help students comprehend Turkish music or whether there were certain musical aspects (e.g., meter, mode/tonality) that may have made the Turkish music more difficult for students to recognize. The researchers did state that the unit emphasized music literacy and cultural context, but it is unclear how these concepts would facilitate greater aural comprehension of culturally unfamiliar music. If the unit had focused on helping students audiate the tonal and rhythmic context (e.g., tonal center, beat levels) of the music and helping students develop an aural/oral vocabulary of tonal patterns and rhythm patterns inherent in Turkish music, it is possible students may have shown improved aural comprehension.

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