Words and music, working memory capacity, and the aesthetics of the line in song.

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk


Humans have various kinds of limited-capacity memory, including the episodic buffer of working memory, the phonological loop, and auditory sensory memory (and Berz 1995 argues also for a music memory loop). These limited capacity memories are the interface between our perceptions and long term memory. In Fabb (2015) and other publications I have argued that the poetic line is a unit which is held as a whole in working memory, and that various poetic forms such as metre, parallelism, rhyme and alliteration are calculated over that unit in working memory. Similar arguments have been made about limits on the amount of musical form which can be held at a time in working memory (Swain 1986, Snyder 2000, Ockelford 2002, 2007, etc.). I describe the various kinds of capacity constraints - both in poetry and in music - which have been proposed, and note that in both domains, this primarily relates to number of units (maximum four), or number of relations between elements (maximum two), with some role also played by limits on time (2 seconds in the phonological loop, a few more seconds in the auditory sensory memory).

The focal question of this paper is to ask what happens when verbal sequences are combined with musical sequences, in songs. Is the line of a song held all at once in working memory? I consider the experiential consequences of treating the line as a psychologically distinct unit, arguing that a 'part' or 'fragment' can have a distinctive aesthetic status. This discussion draws on the extensive research in psychology on whether in songs, words and music are processed separately or together (Serafine al 1984, 1986, Palmer and Kelly 1992, Schön al 2005, Sammler al 2010, Gordon al 2010, Alonso al 2014, etc.). It also relates to the question of whether poetry is perceptually attenuated when combined with music, compared with uncombined, and whether this relates to capacity issues (Britten and Tippett both had views on the attenuation of poetry, and I refer also to Langer 1957 and Hellmuth 2013). A relevant question relates specifically to the presence of distinct poetic and musical metres in songs. I also discuss the aesthetics of complexity, when capacity is pushed to its limit, referring to Fabb and Turpin's (2017) article on complexity in Australian Aboriginal songs and other cultural practices.
Period25 Jul 2017
Held atSydney Conservatorium of Music - The University of Sydney, Australia
Degree of RecognitionLocal