Melbourne Conservatorium of Music - Theses

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    The impact of synaesthesia and absolute pitch on musical development
    Glasser, Solange ( 2018)
    This dissertation investigated the impact of synaesthesia and absolute pitch (AP) on musical development. Synaesthesia is a rare neurological condition in which the stimulation of one sense modality leads to an automatic, involuntary experience in a second sense modality. While synaesthesia is more prevalent among arts professionals, and is linked to enhanced memory and creativity, no studies to date have examined the impact of synaesthesia on musical development. A review of the literature uncovered that AP - the ability to label a given note in the absence of a reference note - was often reported to co-occur with synaesthesia. Synaesthesia and AP are thus two uncommon neurological conditions that require involuntary and stable mappings between perceptual and verbal representations. The purpose of this study was to identify the degree to which synaesthesia or AP possession may facilitate or impair the cognitive, affective, and behavioural outcomes of musical development, and to investigate the potential interaction between synaesthesia and AP for participants who possess both conditions. In order to fulfil these objectives, a mixed-methods study was devised which involved thirty-five students and academic staff members of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, the University of Melbourne (Australia). The data collected from each participant consisted of information obtained from an online survey, a semi-structured interview, and synaesthesia and AP test batteries. A cognitive-affective-behavioural model of musical development was formulated to provide a framework for the organisation of the results collected. The results of this study indicate that synaesthesia and AP initially impact musical development at a cognitive level, by enhancing memory encoding and multimodal mental imagery. Enhancements in these domains exert a developmental influence on affective states, specifically motivation, identity, and emotion. These affective outcomes influence musical behaviour, notably choices, preferences, and performance. Both enhancements and limitations to cognitive, affective, and behavioural outcomes were recognized as being influenced by the possession of synaesthesia or AP. Ultimately, however, all participants indicated they would retain their condition(s) if given the choice, with advantages outweighing any negative aspects. Furthermore, a phenomenological analysis of both conditions demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of AP cases in this study meet the diagnostic criteria for synaesthesia. While further research is needed to test and confirm this claim, synaesthesia and AP are conjectured to be phenomenological variants of the same condition. The results fulfil an important initial role of uncovering and recounting the unique lived-world experiences of these musicians, and have implications for how musicianship is taught to students who possess synaesthesia and AP. This study has broadened understandings of the effects of synaesthesia and AP on musical development, and of the complex relationship that exists between these two conditions and musical potential and ability. Findings support evidence from other areas by demonstrating a positive link between synaesthesia and memory, data organisation, and creative inspiration, while additionally expanding this link to include AP.