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memory for pitch

Title: memory for pitch
Dear all,

Baddeley's working memory model doesn't take pitch information, or musical information, into account. Concerning short term memory for pitch, a while ago I carried out a number of experiments showing that this is the function of a specialized  memory system. For example, if two test tones are separated by a sequence of intervening tones, recognition is severely degraded, even though the subjects are told to ignore the intervening tones. But if the tones are instead separated by a sequence of spoken numbers, there is little if any degradation of pitch recognition, even when the subjects are asked to recall the numbers. See:

Deutsch, D. Tones and numbers: Specificity of interference in immediate memory. Science,1970, 168, 1604-1605

posted as a PDF at http://psy.ucsd.edu/~ddeutsch/psychology/deutsch_publications.htm

The effect has been replicated and extended by others, particularly Semal and Demany (references posted at my website).

Also my  CD 'Phantom words, and other curiosities'  - available from
 http://www.philomel.com - contains a full experiment demonstrating this  effect, and this experiment makes for an excellent classroom demonstration - the students find the contrast between the interpolated tones and interpolated numbers surprising and entertaining.

In other experiments, short term memory for pitch has been shown to be the function of a system in which highly specific and orderly interactive effects take place. For reviews, see the two book chapters also posted as PDFs on the above website:

Deutsch, D. The organization of short-term memory for a single acoustic attribute. In D. Deutsch & J. A. Deutsch (Eds.), Short-term memory. New York: Academic Press, 1975. l07-l51

Deutsch, D. Processing of pitch combinations. In Deutsch, D. (Ed.) The psychology of music, 2nd Edition, Academic Press, 1999, 349-412.

Several articles demonstrating specific effects are posted as PDFs on this website, and on


where other references are also given.
About the issue of rehearsal strategy, subjects in these experiments keep trying to adopt different strategies, and generally believe they have found the 'ideal' strategy for a while, only to abandon it for a different one. But their actual data show no advantage of one strategy over another. So at least where memory for the pitch of a single tone is concerned, performance appears to be substantially unrelated to rehearsal strategy, and appears to be the function of a low-level system that has characteristics which are very similar to the system that handles pitch information at the incoming level. But one additional thing - it's easy to show a dissociation between 'what' and 'when' information in pitch memory. See, for example:

 Deutsch, D. Dislocation of tones in a musical sequence: A memory illusion. Nature, 1970, 226, No. 5242


  Deutsch, D. Effect of repetition of standard and comparison tones on recognition memory for pitch. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1972, 93, 156-162,

both of which are available as PDFs at the above websites.


Professor Diana Deutsch
Department of Psychology                          
University of California, San Diego
9500 Gilman Dr. #0109            
La Jolla, CA 92093-0109, USA

858-453-1558 (tel)
858-453-4763 (fax)