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 :-)
Levitin, D. J., Cook, P. R. (1996). Memory for musical tempo: Additional evidence that auditory memory is absolute. Perception & Psychophysics, 58, 927-935
D. 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
E. Glenn Schellenberg, Sandra E. Trehub (2003). Good pitch memory is widespread Psychological Science, 14 (3), 262-266 DOI: 10.1111/1467-9280.03432