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Spiritual Chanting Bends Time Perception

Jessica Pinkham (M.M. ’16) presents research findings at international music cognition conference

Jessica Pinkham (M.M. Performance/French Horn ’16) at the international ICMPC14 conference in San Francisco.

Associate Professor of Music Education Sarah Allen presented at the ICMPC14 conference.

Assistant Professor of Music History Peter Kupfer (back row, right) served on a panel at the ICMPC14 symposium.

SMU Meadows School of the Arts on track to create new MuSci music cognition lab

What started out as a class assignment for music student Jessica Pinkham turned into an expanded pilot study on the effects of spiritual chanting, then grew into a poster presentation for a prestigious international conference.

Pinkham’s presentation, co-authored with Meadows Assistant Professor of Music History Zachary Wallmark, was titled “Effects on Temporal Perception of Repetitive Vocalization in a Group Setting.” The research was presented at the 14th biennial International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC14), held in San Francisco July 5-9 and attended by 500 people from 30 countries.

The study measured time perception in individuals participating in group mantra chanting. Pinkham served as principal investigator for the project, with design and analysis assistance from Wallmark, who is also founding director of the new MuSci music cognition lab at SMU Meadows School of the Arts. It was in Wallmark’s fall 2015 “Music and Emotion” class that Pinkham (M.M. Performance/French Horn ’16) first began work on the study.

In addition to helping with the poster, Wallmark gave a research talk at the conference as part of a panel on music and neuroscience (“Neural Correlates of Dispositional Empathy in Music Listening”). Two additional members of the Meadows community also presented research at the conference: Associate Professor of Music Education Sarah Allen (“Artistic Practice: Expressive Goals Provide Structure for the Perceptual and Motor Components of Music Performance”) and Assistant Professor of Music History Peter Kupfer (“Classical Music in Television Commercials: A Social-Psychological Perspective”).

Forming the study

Pinkham’s presentation was nearly a year in the making. At the beginning, she studied commonalities between spiritual music practices, paying special attention to Sufi and Buddhist “trance” chants, among others. “I've been to a number of religious services - Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Greek Orthodox - and music plays a pivotal role in each of these religions,” she says. “We decided to focus on one particularly ubiquitous practice for the study: chanting, specifically in mantra style. We landed on examining how mantra-style chant affected people’s subjective experience of time, specifically in a group setting.” Pinkham describes “mantra-style” as sustained vocalizations of one or a few syllables, such as “om” or “Hare Krishna.”

Guided by Wallmark, she designed the study to test groups of students as they performed four tasks, each for a different (randomized) length of time: sitting in silence; listening to a recording of a group chanting a mantra created specifically for the study; speaking the mantra repetitively; and singing the mantra repetitively. All tasks were done as a group; after each task, each participant recorded how many seconds they thought had elapsed.

“Losing track of time is a common feeling in spiritual experiences,” says Pinkham. “Our hope was to measure how accurate people were during each task, and to find that the percentage of difference from the actual time elapsed would indicate how much each task distorted people's perception of time.”

Pinkham says their results lined up with their hypothesis that mantra-style chants would distort time the most of the four tasks. The variance of time estimates for singing the chant was significantly higher than for the other three activities.

Custom mantra: “sha-oon … ”

For the study, Pinkham elected to use a mantra she had created herself, saying reactions to the familiar Sanskrit “om” and the longer Vaishnava “Hare Krishna” mantras could have triggered pre-formed thoughts and reactions in the study participants. To provide a clean slate, she selected an unfamiliar two-syllable sound, “sha-oon,” as the mantra used in the study.

“Jess’s study makes a novel and important contribution to understanding the psychology of music in spiritual contexts,” notes Wallmark. “Traditions around the world use chant practices to induce altered states of temporal awareness, but there’s not much empirical work out there exploring how and why. Jess’s work shows for the first time a pretty dramatic effect of chanting on how we perceive passing time. Judging from positive feedback at the conference, I suspect this work will develop into an important contribution to the music cognition literature.”

Pinkham graduated with her master’s degree in performance/French horn in May and is now pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts in horn performance at Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. “I’m not done with the research yet,” says Pinkham. “I'd like to see how the procedure holds up with individuals outside of a group setting.”

Next: “MuSci,” a new music cognition lab at SMU

For Wallmark, the early success of Pinkham’s research adds momentum to establishing the MuSci Lab, a new music cognition laboratory at SMU Meadows. The lab, which received seed funding from an SMU President’s Partners Grant, will foster the development of original student and faculty research on music and musical behaviors using tools from experimental psychology, cognitive neuroscience and cultural musicology. It is located in OFAC 2114, shared with the Music Education Resource Room.

“The kind of trajectory that Jessica experienced is what I want for our students,” he says. “Go from having little to no formal background in a topic, to getting turned on about a particular question, steeping themselves in literature, then having the flexibility and space to come up with their own questions and research to address it.”

Research in the MuSci Lab, says Wallmark, will blend music studies with STEM disciplines.

“MuSci will be especially attractive to students with multiple interests such as music and psychology, music and engineering and more,” he says. “Many of our undergrad music students double major; MuSci can fuse interdisciplinary STEM components with music curriculum. The MuSci Lab will expose students to experiment design, research methods, data collection, analysis and creation of scholarly research reports.”

The MuSci Lab will be available in “soft launch” form in fall 2016 for students interested in working on individual projects or in forming research groups; access to the lab will be coordinated through Wallmark, who can guide students in the research process, if needed. Classes that include MuSci research as part of their curriculum, such as Wallmark’s forthcoming undergraduate “Music and Emotion” (MUHI 4357) course, may be offered as early as spring 2017.

The MuSci Lab will be equipped with five iMac computers with scientific and statistical software; music recording/composition tools; and equipment for basic psychological and physiological experiments.

Read more about SMU Meadows Division of Music.

To get involved in SMU Meadows MuSci Lab, contact Dr. Zachary Wallmark.

The MuSci Lab exposes students to experiment design, research methods, data collection, analysis and creation of scholarly research reports.– Zachary Wallmark, assistant professor of music history

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