Musical Imagery can save lives


So now that I have Wonderwall playing in your head, think about the effortless way in which you just brought that song to mind from memory. How accurately do you think you were imaging the tempo?

Kelly Jakubowski and colleagues from Music Mind & Brain at Goldsmiths University London have used familiar pop songs like this one to cleverly investigate this question and find out what might make us better at getting the tempo correct.

In a recent study they had participants perform three different tasks (2 Imagery, 1 Perception) based on the same 12 highly familiar pop songs of the past 50 years (like Let It Be, Thriller etc), that had a range of original tempos from 50 – 120bpm. In the Imagery tasks participants were given this, with the name of the song, artist and an indication of where the beat is on the bold word (or _ if beat was not set to a lyric):

Figure 1 from Jakubowski et al (2016): Beat marking technique for song lyrics


In one Imagery (Motor) task, the participants were required to imagine the song as closely as possible to the original version and then tapped on the beat for the duration of the lyrics on the screen (16 beats) with their finger on the touchpad. In the other Imagery (Non-motor) task, the same screen appeared, but was accompanied by a beat track that started randomly either (36 or 180 bmp – that is way too fast or slow), forcing participants to adjust the click track with a dial, to match the tempo of their imagined version of the song. (If you want to check how accurate you were check out these versions of Last Christmas and Baby, One more Time). The third task was a perception one where the song was played (starting either too slow / fast – same starting tempo they had originally done the song with in Imagery (non-motor) tasks) and they used the dial to adjust tempo to correct.

OK, so how is this saving lives? Wait for it…. let me get to the results first, then we’ll talk application.

In terms of accuracy of tempo as measured by ratio of tempo chosen over correct tempo and averaged across all trials, first place went to Perception task (0.98), followed in second to Imagery (Motor) (1.02) and finally Imagery (Non-motor) (1.11) was the least accurate.

Interestingly they also found the biggest predictor of how well people did on the Imagery (non-motor) task was Musical Engagement (as measured by the GOLD-MSI), like how often you listen to music or go to concerts – but not necessarily musical training. Whereas people with more musical training were better at tapping along to the imagined beat – and everyone did better when the song was a faster one (100 – 120 bpm). Which makes sense because I think we are all likely to tap and groove along to a faster song! People found these faster songs also easier for the perception task – and as expected the more familiar you are with the song, the better you did at choosing the perceived tempo.

These results show tapping along to the beat interacts with your auditory imagery and actually makes you more accurate. And while faster songs were easier (100 – 120bpm), the slower songs weren’t significantly more variable in the tapping tempo, suggesting that the act of tapping wasn’t harder in the slower songs, but instead participants struggled to accurately recall the song at the correct tempo in their minds. And so we now know we can in fact recall a familiar song’s tempo, and we are more accurate at it if we are tapping or moving to the beat – especially if its a faster song.

Staying Alive” by Éole Wind is licensed under CC BY 2.0 modified with lyrics from the Bee Gees

Now imagine “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees and try tapping along…… pretty easy right? Its conveniently at a speed of 100 bpm, and this turns out to be the perfect rate at which CRP needs to be administered (repeated compressions on the chest), for successful resuscitation.

So thanks to our accurate abilities to imagine a familiar song’s tempo, even if you don’t have you that song on a handy playlist – you can be confident that you can pretty consistently keep the beat and potentially successfully administer CRP at the correct rate just by imagining the song!

Hence musical imagery can save lives*

*though please ensure you still seek urgent medical assistance!



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