Memory structures for encoding and retrieving a piece of music: an ERP investigation

Williamon, A. and Egner, T. (2004) Memory structures for encoding and retrieving a piece of music: an ERP investigation. Cognitive Brain Research, 22 (1) pp. 36-44. ISSN 0926-6410 (print) 1872-6348 (online)


This study examined behavioral and neural correlates of expert musical memory, specifically the hypothesis that particular bars within a complex piece of music would serve as structural markers for encoding to and retrieval from memory. Six pianists were asked to learn and memorize a set prelude by J.S. Bach for performance, and to identify bars that they employed for structuring the prelude into component sections. Following performance from memory, the participants took part in a visual recognition memory task, in which single bars from the prelude had to be distinguished from matched new bars. During the recognition task, the electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded, and event-related potentials (ERPs) from correctly identified prelude stimulus trials were averaged according to their hypothesized status into “structural” and “nonstructural” bars. The results showed that correct identification of structural bars was significantly faster (and tended to display higher accuracy) than recognition of non-structural ones. In addition, recognition of structural bars was associated with a significantly greater negative ERP peak of 300–400 ms latency and a right centro-parietal scalp distribution. This mid-latency negativity appears to index processing of stimuli that served as cues for encoding and retrieval of a complex semantic structure, and is qualitatively and conceptually different from other previously identified recognition memory ERPs (such as the “old/new” effect), as well as from the classic N400 ERP. The data support existing theories of expert memory and music cognition.

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