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Researching Music and Memory

By Jamie McCrary

Nia Tannis

Though AU student Nia Tannis has many talents and skills, perhaps her greatest attribute is her ability to combine multiple interests into one academic and professional career. A psychology and French double major and a music and education studies double minor, Tannis explores these focuses in both her classes and her work outside of AU, seeking cross-disciplinary opportunities that combine her different passions. “My schedule is packed, but it’s been really fun being able to do everything I love,” Tannis says. “It’s really interesting to try to combine everything.” 

Under the supervision of psychology professor Zehra Peynircioglu, Tannis recently completed a study that allowed her to combine her interests in music and education with her focus in psychology. Presented on March 29 at the Robyn Rafferty Mathias Student Research Conference in the Katzen Arts Center, Tannis’s research investigated what enables people to remember “unfamiliar” music in detail. 

In the study, unfamiliar music is defined as “songs not commonly heard or recognized in every- day life,” and includes unknown music such as national anthems from foreign countries, folk music, and popular and classical melodies.  

Distinct or Emotional?

Selecting a total of 48 unfamiliar melodies, Tannis examined two dimensions in people’s ability to process the music: distinctiveness and mood-evoking ability. Songs were presented in pairs, and participants were asked to choose whether melodies were more unique, distinctive, or if they were more emotional, mood-evoking. Following the distinctiveness and mood judgment test, participants were then presented all the songs at random and were asked to identify and describe those they had heard previously.  

Tannis found that not only could participants more accurately identify songs they deemed “distinct” and “mood evoking,” but they could describe them in greater detail. 

“The major research conclusion was that if a song is more distinctive, then you will remember it better,” Tannis says. “Tacking on to this is mood, but not in the way you might initially think. The fact that a song is mood-evoking doesn’t necessarily stimulate memory. What matters is that you’re thinking of what type of mood or emotion it is conveying.”  

Major Implications in Music, Marketing

These conclusions have major implications for the music world, directly connecting to teaching and student learning. By focusing on distinctive aspects of a piece and analyzing how the music affects them emotionally, music students can utilize this research to strengthen their memorization skills. 

“I’m a singer, and I am asked to memorize music pretty frequently,” says Tannis. “If I apply these research conclusions, I know that in order to best remember my music I should examine what emotion certain parts of the song are conveying, and what kinds of distinct details occur within the song.”

Tannis’s research also has potential implications for a seemingly completely different field: marketing and advertising, a profession she is considering pursuing after graduation. Tannis believes her research connects to marketing by providing insight into how people learn and think. 

“My research relates to marketing and advertising because if you know how people remember music and how this data can impact their learning, then you’re able to market products or ideas to that specific demographic,” she says.

Moving forward, Tannis plans to pursue a master’s degree in marketing and advertising or possibly in business administration. Through marketing, Tannis hopes to continue analyzing people’s thoughts and behavior, a key reason she chose to pursue psychology. In addition to offering a psychological focus, Tannis believes marketing will also enable her to continue combining her interests, giving her the opportunity to advertise work across multiple disciplines. 

“I’m hoping I can keep finding ways to include all of my interests in my life,” she says. “Most of all, I want to do something that helps me better understand people and how they think—and hopefully make a difference in people’s lives, too.”