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Laura Snodgrass, Ph.D.
Sensation & Perception Sensation & Perception
Statistics Statistics
Experimental Experimental
Cognitive Cognitive


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  • « « The cover page » »

    Unfamiliar Songs Seem to Last Longer.

    Laura L. Snodgrass









    « « The body of the paper » »

    Unfamiliar Songs Seem to Last Longer

        Some class periods seems to zip by whereas others seem to go on forever. The same actual amount of time can be perceived to move slowly or quickly. One of the factors that can influence the perception of time is the complexity of the stimulus that we are experiencing during that time.

        Yeager (1969; as cited in Schiffman, 1996) found that complex melodies were judged to last longer than simple melodies. Yeager had one group of participants listen to familiar melodies and another group listen to the same melodies played backwards. The participants in the backwards melodies group rated the music as more complex and the time period as longer than the participants listening to the forward melodies. Yeager concluded that increases in complexity cause increases in time perception. I think that complexity is also related to familiarity. Things that are familiar to us should be perceived as more simple, whereas unfamiliar things should be perceived as more complex.

        Based on Yeager's findings with music complexity, I hypothesize that unfamiliar songs will be perceived to last longer than familiar songs. Similar to Yeager, I will use music to influence time perception. Unlike Yeager, I will not play the music backwards. However, I will vary the familiarity of the music. I also hypothesize that music with words will be perceived as more complex and thus seem to last longer than music without words.



        Four male and four female friends participated in the experiment. None of the participants had musical training.


        A Panasonic portable stereo CD system was used to present the music.


        Three friends and I prerated music for familiarity. Songs were chosen based on the pretest ratings. Kiss from a Rose by Seal was used as the familiar piece with words. A Star to Follow by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra was used as the unfamiliar piece with words. Instrumental versions of The First Noel and A Mad Russian's Christmas were used as the familiar and unfamiliar instrumental pieces. Both are performed by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Three minute segments of each of these musical pieces were used as the stimuli.


        A questionnaire with three questions was developed to assess the participants' perceptions. The first question asked participants to rate the music on a scale of one (unfamiliar) to seven (very familiar). The next question asked participants to rate the perceived flow of time on a scale from one (moved slowly) to seven (moved rapidly). Finally participants were asked to indicate the actual duration of the music.


        Participants came to my office one at a time and were asked to remove their watches. The participants heard each piece of music and filled out the questionnaire after each piece. The order of the pieces was randomized for each participant.


        Participants rated the familiar music (M = 6.2) as more familiar than the unfamiliar music (M = 2.3). Table 1 shows that with the unfamiliar music time seemed to move more slowly. However, contrary to my hypothesis, music with words seemed to make the time go more quickly. Table 2 shows that despite differences in how quickly time seemed to move, actual time estimates were very similar in each condition.


        The results supported my hypothesis that unfamiliar music made time seem to move more slowly. If one accepts that unfamiliar things seem more complex, this fits with Yeager's findings that more complex music made time seem to move more slowly. However, my hypothesis that the words would also make the music seem more complex and thus last longer was not supported.

        It may be that the words themselves did not increase the complexity of the music. Or the words may have made the music more interesting and this may have made the time seem to go more quickly.

        If complexity is a major determinant of the perceived flow of time, then one might expect that complex classes should seem to move more slowly than simple classes. It is interesting to note that although familiarity influenced the perceived flow of time, it did not influence actual time estimates. This seems to imply that the perception of actual time is different from the perception of the flow of time.

        If I were to do this study again I would not choose so much holiday music. I also might use music were the words were sung in a different language. The different language might help to make the music even more unfamiliar. It would also be interesting to look at the complexity of different stimuli. One could have subjects look at simple and complex pictures, or read simple or complex words.

    « « The reference page » »


        Schiffman, H. R. (1996). Sensation and Perception: An Integrated Approach (4th Ed.). New York, NY: Wiley & Sons, Inc.

    « « A page of tables or graphs » »

    Table 1

    Average ratings of the perceived flow of time in the different music conditions.

    Instrumental Words
    Familiar 5.6 5.3
    Unfamiliar 3.1 2.8

    Note: One equals slow and seven equals fast.

    Table 2

    Average time estimates, in minutes, for the different music conditions.

    Instrumental Words
    Familiar 2.73 3.2
    Unfamiliar 3.1 2.8


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