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By Michelle Phillips on

Can music make us time travellers?

Time is important to us - it flies, it drags, we can spend it or waste it.

Our sense of time is complex and extremely flexible. The temperature and colour of a room, our mood, where our attention is focussed, our age, and our level of stress at any one moment are some of the factors which influence psychological time.

Image: Nicola Pennill

Music offers an exciting opportunity to study psychological time. Using musical stimuli in the study of time perception allows a researcher control over specific factors which may affect time perception. Previous studies have indeed suggested that altering musical characteristics such as volume, mode (major/minor), chord sequence, and sense of familiarity and enjoyment can change how much time we think has passed. Music is often present in environments where we are particularly sensitive to the passing of time (in a waiting room, restaurant or supermarket, for example). There is a need to know whether music can warp our sense of time in such situations.

“Specifically, we want to know whether a performer may impact on sense of time.” 

We are interested in an important musical quality that has never been explored in relation to time perception: level of expression employed by the performer in their particular interpretation. Specifically, we want to know whether a performer adding a greater level of expression to a performance (small increases and decrease in speed) may impact on sense of time. We investigated these in two studies. The first, conducted at a Lates event at the Museum of Science and Industry, asked participants to judge the length (in seconds) of four audio tracks. The first three were the same piano piece, but played either strictly in time (no expression), with natural levels of expression or with unnatural levels of expression (i.e. the pianist sped up and slowed down where a listener would not expect this). The final stimulus was an extract of an audio book, i.e. spoken word. Study two replicated study one, but exaggerated the levels of expression to a greater extent. We asked participants to listen to one of these extracts over headphones, and then estimate the length of this in seconds (all tracks for study one were 47 seconds, and for study two they were 51 seconds).

Image: Nicola Pennill

Businesses using music in a commercial setting should perhaps choose their recording wisely.”

We found that level of expression does influence perception of time. Specifically, a piece with a greater level of expression results in shorter estimates of time. Adding a level of natural or unnatural expression to a performance decreases estimates of the amount of time passed. Interestingly, in study two the structure was deemed to be clearer in the piece with an unnatural level of expression, and this was also judged to be the shortest. Our next study will disrupt the structure in the ‘unnatural’ condition even more, in order to determine if this increases or decreases estimates of time.

Our results are in line with recent time perception theories: if we perceive an event to have a clear structure, we store a more schematic representation of it in our working memory than for a more disorganised event. If an event is logically and clearly structured, we remember the overall framework of that event, rather than logging individual details. The more skeletal our memory of an event is, the shorter our estimate of its duration.

With our results in mind, musicians may wish to use level of expression to manipulate an audience’s sense of time. Businesses using music in a commercial setting should perhaps choose their recording wisely, given this link between level of expression in performance and perception of time.

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