How Are The Lyrics And Tune Of A Song Processed?

8 Dec

A current debate in music cognition addresses the relationship between the processing of lyrics (words spoken or sung) and tune (melody of words) of a song.  Research that evaluated participants with brain damage, presented compelling evidence to support a theory in which the lyrics and tune of a song are processed independently.  Often in these experiments, participants showed a strong dissociation between lyrics and tune in their music memory after sustaining temporal lobe damage.  However, other research has demonstrated that the processing of lyrics and tune might be interconnected: when listeners were asked to ignore the lyrics when recognizing the tune of a song they were unable too.

Daniela Sammler, Amee Baird, Romain Valabregue, Sylvain Clement, Sophie Dupont, Pascal Belin, and Severine Samson, investigated the degree of integration and separation of lyrics and tune in this study.  12 men and women were selected for the experiment.  One hundred sixty-eight songs, each with different lyrics and tunes, were composed in the style of 19th century French folk songs by a professional.  The songs were short and held an average of 7.65 notes and 5.61 words.  To avoid any extraneous influences on the participants, the songs were recorded with multiple singers covering different octave ranges and timbres.

The participants were instructed to listen to each presented music sample with closed eyes.  They were also instructed to not sing or hum along with the melodies, to just listen.  Listening was done inside an fMRI scanner.  After the scans were completed, the participants rated on a scale from 1 to 9, how intensively they listened to each music example.

The results showed that lyrics and tune were processed with unique degrees of separation along the axis of the superior temporal sulcus and gyrus (STS / STG). In these superior temporal regions, most notabily the left hemisphere, the scans showed that lyrics and tunes were processed at different levels of integegration.  Furthermore, the researchers notated that there was sufficient data to conclude the independence of processing both lyrics and tunes in the left anterior STS.  Thus both components appear to conflate at a prelexical, phonemic level in auditory processing in the left mid-STS.  Lyrics however, might be independently procssed on a higher semantic level in the left anterior STS.  Additionally, several adaption and repetition effects were found  superior temporal lobe bilaterally, suggesting that previously presented stimuli undergoes facilitated cognitive processing.

Sammler, D., Baird, A., Valabregue, R., Clement, S., Dupont, S., Belin, P., & Samson, S., (2010). The relationship of lyrics and tunes in the processing of unfamiliar songs: a functional magnetic resonance adaptation study. The Journal Of Neuroscience, 30(10), 3572-3578.

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