Original research article
Although sex differences have been observed in various cognitive domains, there has been little work examining sex differences in the cognition of melody sex. We tested the prediction that women would be better than men at recognizing familiar melodies, since memories of specific melodies are likely to be learned at least in part by declarative memory, which shows female advantages.
Participants were 24 men and 24 women, with half musicians and half non-musicians in each group. The two groups were matched on age, education, and various measures of musical training. Participants were presented with well-known and novel melodies, and were asked to indicate their recognition of familiar melodies as melody sex as possible.
The women were ificantly faster than the men in responding, with a large effect size. The female advantage held across musicians and non-musicians, and across melodies with and without commonly associated lyrics, as evidenced by an absence of interactions between sex and these factors.
Additionally, the did not seem to be explained by sex differences in response biases, or in basic motor processes as tested in a control task. Though caution is warranted given that this is the first study to examine sex differences in familiar melody recognition, the are consistent with the hypothesis motivating our prediction, namely that declarative memory underlies knowledge about music particularly about familiar melodiesand that the female advantage at declarative memory may thus lead to female advantages in music cognition particularly at familiar melody recognition.
Additionally, the findings argue against the view that female advantages at tasks involving verbal or verbalizable material are due solely to a sex difference specific to the verbal domain.
Further, the may help explain ly reported cognitive commonalities between music and language: since declarative memory also underlies language, such commonalities may be partly due to a common dependence on this memory system. More generally, because declarative memory is well studied at many levels, evidence that music cognition depends on this system may lead to a powerful research program generating a wide range of novel predictions for the neurocognition of music, potentially advancing the field.
Sex differences have been observed in various cognitive domains. For example, it has been suggested that boys and men have advantages at aspects of visuospatial cognition, while girls and women are better at aspects of verbal cognition Kimura, ; Halpern, Sex differences in a variety of other domains have also been examined, though inconsistent findings and variability in the magnitude of the effects have led to questions about the existence of sex differences in cognition Hyde, There has been little examination, however, of sex differences in the cognition of music.
This seems somewhat surprising, given the surge of research on music cognition in recent decades Levitin and Tirovolas, ; Tirovolas and Levitin,as well as the apparent sex differences found in verbal cognition. Recent evidence suggests that the processing of language melody sex music may be subserved by at least partially overlapping neural substrates Patel, ; Brown et al.
It is possible that some of the sex differences observed in language are driven by sex differences in these common substrates, suggesting they may extend to music cognition as well. A relatively small of neurocognitive studies have examined behavioral sex differences in aspects of music cognition. These studies have focused mainly on the low-level perception of single auditory events, such as those involved in spontaneous and click-evoked otoacoustic emissions Snihur and Hampson,transient evoked otoacoustic emissions Cassidy and Ditty,and pitch memory Gaab et al.
Music is, however, a complex phenomenon, consisting of several such events unfolding and interacting in time. It is possible that this focus on the low-level perception of single auditory events has left undetected behavioral sex differences in higher-level aspects of music cognition.
A useful distinction can be melody sex between two higher level aspects of music cognition: knowledge of the general patterns of a musical system, often referred to as knowledge of musical syntax Koelsch and Friederici, ; Koelsch et al.
It has been proposed that much of the aesthetic value of music comes from the adherence to and violation of expectations generated by each of these two types of knowledge Bharucha, It has also been proposed that the two types of knowledge can be dissociated, and may depend on different memory systems in the brain Huron, ; Miranda and Ullman, This proposal is supported by an event-related potential ERP study demonstrating a double dissociation between the processing of violations of musical syntax melody sex violations of familiar melodies, which involve idiosyncratic representations Miranda and Ullman, Given these dissociations, it is possible that sex differences may be found in either syntactic schematic or idiosyncratic veridical aspects of music cognition, but not in both.
We are aware of two studies that have examined behavioral sex differences in higher-level aspects of music cognition Koelsch et al. Both of these focused on musical syntax, probing responses to violations of syntactic expectations. Though sex differences in electrophysiological brain responses as measured by ERPs were observed in both studies, neither found sex differences in performance.
Of course, such null effects could be due to many factors. The possibility remains, however, that there are indeed performance advantages for one sex over the other in tasks of higher-level music cognition, but that these involve knowledge of idiosyncratic aspects of music rather than knowledge of musical syntax.
Indeed, as we shall see, some evidence suggests that knowledge regarding specific aspects of melody sex is stored, at least in part, in declarative memory, a melody sex memory system that is critical for learning idiosyncratic information in general, including in language. Crucially, declarative memory also shows sex differences, in particular a female advantage, including in the recognition of ly learned idiosyncratic verbal material such as vocabulary items. Thus it is possible that this female advantage might extend to aspects of music cognition that depend on this memory system.
Specifically, a female advantage may be expected in the recognition of familiar melodies, which involve idiosyncratic representations. We tested this prediction in the present study by examining the performance of men and women in a familiar melody recognition task. In the remainder of the Introduction, we first briefly summarize the nature of declarative memory and evidence suggesting sex differences in this system. We then lay out the evidence suggesting that in music cognition, the storage and retrieval of knowledge about specific melodies depends, at least in part, on declarative memory.
Finally, we summarize the present study. Declarative memory is quite well understood for reviews, see Ullman,; Henke, ; Squire and Wixted, ; Eichenbaum, ; Cabeza and Moscovitch, As its name suggests, this memory system underlies the learning, storage, and retrieval of explicit knowledge, which is available to conscious awareness — although increasing evidence indicates that it also subserves implicit knowledge Henke, ; Ullman, The system is rooted in the hippocampus and other medial temporal lobe structures.
These structures are critical for the learning and consolidation of new knowledge. The subsequent storage of much of this knowledge, however, eventually relies largely on neocortical regions, especially in the temporal lobes. Declarative memory may be specialized for learning arbitrary bits of information and binding them together Henke, ; Squire and Wixted, Indeed, the system may be necessary for learning such idiosyncratic information.
This may help explain evidence that damage to the declarative memory system can severely impair or even prevent the learning of knowledge about words and other idiosyncratic information Squire and Wixted, ; Ullman, Increasing evidence suggests a female advantage at declarative memory, including in idiosyncratic aspects of language for a discussion and review of the literature, see Ullman et al.
Studies have shown female advantages for a wide melody sex of episodic memory tasks which crucially depend on declarative memoryincluding those testing verbal material, landmarks, objects, object locations, novel faces, and complex abstract patterns Ullman et al. A female advantage has also been reported for word learning Kaushanskaya et al.
These behavioral female advantages are consistent with anatomical sex differences Ullman et al. For example, the hippocampus seems to develop at a faster rate, with respect to the rest of the brain, in girls than in boys between the ages of one and sixteen Pfluger et al.
The behavioral and anatomical sex differences may be at least partly mediated by estrogen, which is found in higher levels in girls and pre-menopausal women than in boys and men Wilson et al. Given the dependence of idiosyncratic and other aspects of language on declarative memory Ullman, many if not most of the ly reported sex differences in language may in fact be explained by broader, domain-independent sex differences in the declarative memory system Ullman,; Ullman et al.
Accordingly, the female advantage at the storage and retrieval of idiosyncratic representations may extend beyond ly studied verbal and non-verbal domains and functions to music cognition — in particular to the storage and retrieval of knowledge about specific melodies. As we have seen, the cognition of music, like that of language, requires the memorization of specific, idiosyncratic representations, including of familiar melodies.
Melodies contain specific sequences of notes that must be veridically learned, even though the sequences are also schematically constrained by the syntax of a musical system — much like words involve particular melody sex of phonemes that are also constrained by the rules of phonotactics.
Given that declarative memory seems to underlie the learning and storage of knowledge about words, and more generally may be necessary for learning arbitrary bits of information and binding them together, it may be expected that this system is also critical for learning idiosyncratic representations in music, including knowledge about specific melodies.
Some evidence already suggests that this may be the case. In an electrophysiological study, an ERP component characterized as an N was observed in response to expectation violations resulting from altered notes within melodies that were well known and thus likely to be familiar to participantsbut not to violations of notes within novel melodies Miranda and Ullman, Ns, which originate in part in the medial temporal lobe McCarthy et al.
The findings of the music ERP study Miranda and Ullman, thus suggest that, like knowledge of these various types of non-musical idiosyncratic information, knowledge about familiar melodies may also be stored in and retrieved from declarative memory. Given the female advantages observed in other tasks involving declarative memory, including in both the learning of new knowledge and the retrieval of ly learned information, such advantages might also extend to knowledge of idiosyncratic representations in music, including of familiar melodies.
We thus predicted a female advantage at recognizing familiar melodies.
To test this prediction we examined the recognition of well-known melodies in adults. We focused on the recognition of already-known melodies, rather than the learning of new melodies, because evidence suggests that consolidation — even over the course of months or longer — can ificantly affect outcomes Marshall and Born, ; Morgan-Short et al.
Healthy men and women were presented with both well-known and novel melodies. Participants were asked to indicate as quickly and accurately as possible during the presentation of each melody whether they were familiar with it. Response time RT as well as accuracy measures were obtained. RTs typically provide greater variability than accuracy, and minimize the likelihood of ceiling effects. In addition, some evidence suggests that the time element may be important in revealing the hypothesized female advantages Walenski et al.
We examined both musicians and non-musicians. This allowed us to test how broadly the melody sex may hold across musical training. Testing across musicians and non-musicians is also important because studies examining neural sex differences have found interactions between sex and musical training Evers et al. It is also plausible that members of either sex might have had greater exposure to the well-known melodies than members of the other sex. To attempt to address these issues, after each of their melody sex recognition responses, participants were asked to report a familiarity rating for the melody.
By covarying out these ratings in our analyses, we were able to test whether any group differences in performance held even when familiarity was held constant. All of the stimuli were presented instrumentally.