Memory and Music at the IAS
I was part of the lucky IAS cohort from Michaelmas 2019, when life was in ‘normal mode’. Although for me, having an office in a Castle, within view of a Cathedral, and from time to time, putting on a gown for High Table were anything but normal! I am a cognitive psychologist who studies how the mind and brain process nonverbal information, particularly music. My IAS partner was Tuomas Eerola in the Department of Music who also straddles the worlds of Psychology and Music. I was also happy to reconnect with Kelly Jakubowski, an early-career member of the department who I had been working with since she was a masters student at Goldsmiths (where I had done my prior sabbatical). After I arrived, I began interacting with memory researcher Alex Easton in Psychology (now IAS Director), which completed a very nice triangle of shared interests.
I enjoyed meeting all my fellow Fellows and learning about topics far from my knowledge base, including the two special projects on clay, and conflict mediation strategies for the 21st century. It was also a joy to be housed in Collingwood College, where I had both a cozy flat but also the opportunity to dine with the students which I did on many an evening. I had many interesting conversations with the Principal Joe Elliot and his staff; an extra bonus was that Vice-Principal Grant Slater has an interest in local history and he and his wife graciously took me on some excursions to explore abbeys, castles, and of course pubs along the coast.
My main projects with my host were all in the planning and in some cases early trial periods during my stay, but unfortunately, due to the ensuing pandemic, most psychology research was derailed. Tuomas and I, along with his then-PhD student James Armitage (who is now Vice-Master at Hatfield College) were able to transition one project to on-line administration, and we are about to submit a paper showing that when cues to emotion in a melody conflict (a major tune played on a viola, which is a ‘sad’ instrument, or vice versa, a minor tune played on a happy banjo), it takes longer for people to judge the emotion, but people remember those perhaps unexpected combinations better. We hope to re-energize a few more of the sidelined projects in the future.
My conversations with Alex led to my co-supervising (with Kelly) a Collingwood undergraduate in a series of studies on whether making tunes more distinctive by playing them in different instruments (vs all the same) can help memory. Turns out the answer is (surprisingly) no, and a paper is in progress summarising those studies. Fortunately, the student has stayed on as his post-grad, and I continue to be an informal secondary supervisor. Another IAS connection is that I was invited to a meeting of the IAS Representing Memory project that took place in Michaelmas 2021. I took part in many lively conversations with those Fellows and as one outgrowth, Alex and I developed another project idea on music memory that is currently under review for a British Academy Research Grant. If funded, that will enable a workshop that I will help organise in Durham.
I spent some very enjoyable time giving research presentations not only to the Music and Psychology departments at Durham (including at a very engaging meeting organized by Kelly on Music and Lifetime Memories), but in the Anthropology Department as well as both a public lecture and an internal talk sponsored by the IAS. I also travelled to other universities (Glasgow, York, Royal Northern College of Music, Hertfordshire, and the Sorbonne) to give talks.
I was able to connect to the Durham community in another way, as I am an avid choral singer and was lucky enough to join the Durham Singers for the term, after a somewhat harrowing audition involving sightreading a very difficult piece! We performed the piece, Souls of the Righteous (by Francis Potts) at a moving Remembrance Day-themed concert at Ushaw College, and I also participated in a Christmas concert in St. George’s Chapel at Auckland Castle (with the Bishop of Durham in attendance). One of my most meaningful and memorable performing experiences occurred just before my departure, when we sang in the Light Up a Life service (to commemorate the loss of loved ones) at the Cathedral. We performed Heinrich Schütz’s Selig Sind die Toten (Blessed Are the Dead). The climactic section is the Spirit saying that the departed may rest from their labours; and that line resonated so hauntingly in that space. To sing that masterpiece with 35 committed singers, to the hundreds of people gathered in solemn remembrance, in that magnificent venue, was a perfect convergence of life and art.
Since my time as a Fellow, I have continued a line of research with a US collaborator on (relevant to the paragraph above) why some people are better than others at matching pitch accurately. I’m also continuing work with a collaborator at Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London) on a community outreach project that looked at adult nonsingers, who took 10 months of singing lessons on a ‘journey’ to becoming singers. A new project looks at a type of singing I admire but have no idea how to do: jazz improvisation. We are examining the neural activity involved in actually improvising and also imagining improvisation. A few recent papers are listed below. And I have also commenced a different kind of journey in beginning my first-ever stint chairing my home department. Fortunately I am partnered with an experienced co-chair; as anyone who had taken on this sort of rein (and reign) knows, there are many many things to learn quickly.
I am truly grateful for the wonderful support shown by the IAS, including the ever resourceful and cheerful Linda Crowe, the community offered by my College and co-Fellows and hosts, and the chance to explore new physical and intellectual spaces. I hope to continue my association with IAS and Durham for the foreseeable future!
Halpern, A.R., Mungan, E., & Peynircioglu, Z. (2021). Mood judgments and memory for tunes: A special case of levels of processing? Auditory Perception and Cognition, 4, 97-120. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/25742442.2021.1987117
Halpern, A.R. & Pfordresher, P. Q. (2021). What do less accurate singers remember? Pitch matching ability and long-term memory for music. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 84, 260-269. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13414-021-02391-1
May, L., Halpern, A.R., Paulsen, S. D. & Casey, M. A. (2022). Imagined musical scale relationships decoded from auditory cortex. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_01858