Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Can music (cognition) save your life?

To explore the research finding I’m about to present, I asked my girlfriend this afternoon to think of the film Saturday Night Fever and the song Stayin’ Alive. Being of the generation that grew-up in the late seventies, she could sing it immediately. I tapped along on my computer spacebar (using MusicMath software) which indicated an average of 105 BPM. And, surprisingly, the original was recorded at 103 BPM (well within the just noticeable difference for tempo perception)!

Dan Levitin and Perry Cook did a similar, but more systematic experiment in the late nineties and found that most people can actually do this quite easily —roughly within a 4-8% tempo difference range—, and especially for songs they are quite familiar with. The results were interpreted as evidence for an (iconic) long term memory for tempo, especially for popsongs that are often heard in one single version.

I was reminded of this research because of a recent e-mail by Lauren Stewart (see earlier blog) pointing me at a news clipping from CNN.com/health with the title Stayin' Alive' has near-perfect rhythm to help jump-start heart, stating:
CHICAGO, Illinois (AP) -- "Stayin' Alive" might be more true to its name than the Bee Gees ever could have guessed: At 103 beats per minute, the old disco song has almost the perfect rhythm to help jump-start a stopped heart. In a small but intriguing study from the University of Illinois medical school, doctors and students maintained close to the ideal number of chest compressions doing CPR while listening to the catchy, sung-in-falsetto tune from the 1977 movie "Saturday Night Fever."
Well, I cannot oversee the impact of this for the medical world (it was published as a pilot study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine), yet it is an another interesting example of the fact that we can easily remember the tempo of a familiar or ‘sticky’ song. The pilot-experiment showed that the participants (ten doctors and five medical students, to be precise) when asked think of Stayin’ Alive could easily reproduce the tempo of the original (in this study an average of 108 BPM). Apparently the ‘stickiness’ of the song proves very useful as a kind of mental metronome in applying cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

This might well be the first, potential lifesaving application of music and music cognition research :-)

ResearchBlogging.orgLevitin, D. J., Cook, P. R. (1996). Memory for musical tempo: Additional evidence that auditory memory is absolute. Perception & Psychophysics, 58, 927-935

ResearchBlogging.orgD. Matlock, J.W. Hafner, E.G. Bockewitz, L.T. Barker, J.D. Dewar (2008). “Stayin' Alive”: A Pilot Study to Test the Effectiveness of a Novel Mental Metronome in Maintaining Appropriate Compression Rates in Simulated Cardiac Arrest Scenarios Annals of Emergency Medicine, 52 (4), S67-S68

ResearchBlogging.orgE. Glenn Schellenberg, Sandra E. Trehub (2003). Good pitch memory is widespread Psychological Science, 14 (3), 262-266 DOI: 10.1111/1467-9280.03432


  1. Interesting. Any studies about the same strategy with respect to key? I myself can simulate the effect of perfect pitch by thinking of a piece of music in that key. So if I'm wondering whether a given piece is in E, say, I might mentally reference BMW 1042, then compare. Sometimes I have to vocalize to be sure. (Maybe this is just a species of perfect pitch, but usually one things of perfect pitch as the reliable recognition of pitches without the need for any conscious comparison.)

  2. Indeed, several studies have been done for pitch as well, with similar results. I added a reference above (Schellenberg 2003).