An investigation of non-musicians' conservation of melody under harmonic deformations



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This study was designed to extend Zimmerman’s research to adult listeners’ music conservation involving harmony. Three different harmonic conditions were included: primary chords, diatonic chords and secondary chords. Participants (N = 80) listened to 34 pairs of musical examples and identified whether the melody was the same or different in each paired example. Results indicated that non-musicians were able to conserve melody when harmony was added (Task I, in which a melody was played first, followed by the same melody with harmony), regardless of the complexity of harmony. Non-musicians were able to aurally separate melody from harmony (Task III, in which a melody with harmony was played first, followed by the same melody by itself); however, data showed that non-musicians were significantly more accurate when hearing diatonic harmony as opposed to secondary harmony. Although Task III was the reverse of Task I, the fact that non-musicians’ recognition of melody was not influenced by the complexity of harmony in Task I but was influenced in Task III might imply that these two tasks are not completely equivalent in nature. Results also showed that not every listener in the study who received a perfect score under one harmonic condition in Task I also earned a perfect score under the same harmonic condition in Task III; or vice versa. The indication that a listener could conserve in one direction but may not be able to conserve in the opposite direction may indicate the existence of musical reversibility. For Task II, non-musicians were asked to listen to a melody with harmony first, then the same melody with different harmony. Results indicated that non-musicians were significantly better at conserving a melody when harmony was changed from primary to diatonic chords, than when harmony was changed from primary to secondary chords. Overall, data showed that non-musicians were significantly less accurate on Task II, as opposed to Task I and III; however, any two of the three tasks were significantly positively correlated. The results that non-musicians who performed perfectly in both Task I and III under any one of the three harmonic conditions, obtained better performance scores on Task II might also suggest the role of musical reversibility in musical cognition. Future empirical research, however, is needed to further examine the nature of musical reversibility and its role in musical learning. An area for future study might also include at which age harmonic development “naturally” occurs and whether it is facilitated earlier and further with music training.



Music Conservation, Conservation of Melody, Harmonic Deformations, Piaget, Zimmerman, Reversibility