The effect of pitch, rhythm, and familiarity on working memory and anxiety as measured by digit recall performance

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The purpose of this study was to isolate and quantitatively evaluate the effects of pitch and rhythm of unfamiliar and familiar melodies on working memory and anxiety as measured by sequential digit recall performance. Partici pants (N = 60) listened to 6 treatment conditions each consisting of 9 randomized monosyllabic digits. The digits were paired with (a) a familiar melody and pitch only, (b) a familiar melody and rhythm only, (c) a familiar melody with both pitch and rhythm, (d) an unfamiliar melody with pitch only, (e) an unfamiliar melody with rhythm only, and (I) an unfamiliar melody with both pitch and rhythm. The 6 different treatments were counterbalanced using a Latin square design in an attempt to control for order effects. Participants rated their state anxiety on a Likert-type scale before, midway through, and after the digits test. No statistically significant order, learning, or practice effects were found. A 3-way repeated-measures ANOVA indicated a statistically significant difference in digit recall performance across musical element conditions and groups. Results indicated that music majors outperformed nonmusic majors on the digit recall task. Participants were able to recall digits from the rhythm condition most accurately while recalling digits from pitch only and both pitch and rhythm conditions the least accurately. Graphic analysis of treatment as a function of sequential position indicated digit recall was best during conditions of primacy and recency. No main effects were found for the familiarity condition. Additionally, no main effects or interactions were found for the anxiety variable. The results of this study are congruent with existing working memory and music literature suggesting that pairing in formation with rhythm can facilitate recall, music majors outperform non-music majors, and recall accuracy is best in positions of primacy and recency. Implications for practice in therapy and education are made as well as suggestions for future research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)70-83
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Music Therapy
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2010


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