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J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2016 Aug;42(8):1061-5. doi: 10.1037/xhp0000226. Epub 2016 Apr 28.

Pupils dilate for vocal or familiar music.

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Department of Psychology, University of Toronto.


Previous research reveals that vocal melodies are remembered better than instrumental renditions. Here we explored the possibility that the voice, as a highly salient stimulus, elicits greater arousal than nonvocal stimuli, resulting in greater pupil dilation for vocal than for instrumental melodies. We also explored the possibility that pupil dilation indexes memory for melodies. We tracked pupil dilation during a single exposure to 24 unfamiliar folk melodies (half sung to la la, half piano) and during a subsequent recognition test in which the previously heard melodies were intermixed with 24 novel melodies (half sung, half piano) from the same corpus. Pupil dilation was greater for vocal melodies than for piano melodies in the exposure phase and in the test phase. It was also greater for previously heard melodies than for novel melodies. Our findings provide the first evidence that pupillometry can be used to measure recognition of stimuli that unfold over several seconds. They also provide the first evidence of enhanced arousal to vocal melodies during encoding and retrieval, thereby supporting the more general notion of the voice as a privileged signal. (PsycINFO Database Record.

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