Memory & Cognition

, Volume 38, Issue 2, pp 163-175

First online:

Musicians' and nonmusicians' short-term memory for verbal and musical sequences: Comparing phonological similarity and pitch proximity

  • Victoria J. WilliamsonAffiliated withPsychology Department, Goldsmiths, University of London Email author 
  • , Alan D. BaddeleyAffiliated withUniversity of York
  • , Gramham J. HitchAffiliated withUniversity of York


Language-music comparative studies have highlighted the potential for shared resources or neural overlap in auditory short-term memory. However, there is a lack of behavioral methodologies for comparing verbal and musical serial recall. We developed a visual grid response that allowed both musicians and nonmusicians to perform serial recall of letter and tone sequences. The new method was used to compare the phonological similarity effect with the impact of an operationalized musical equivalent — pitch proximity. Over the course of three experiments, we found that short-term memory for tones had several similarities to verbal memory, including limited capacity and a significant effect of pitch proximity in nonmusicians. Despite being vulnerable to phonological similarity when recalling letters, however, musicians showed no effect of pitch proximity, a result that we suggest might reflect strategy differences. Overall, the findings support a limited degree of correspondence in the way that verbal and musical sounds are processed in auditory short-term memory.