Attentional Flexibility and Memory Capacity in Conductors and Pianists

Clemens Wöllner
Andrea R. Halpern, Bucknell University


Individuals with high working memory (WM) capacity also tend to have better selective and divided attention. Although both capacities are essential for skilled performance in many areas, evidence for potential training and expertise effects is scarce. We investigated the attentional flexibility of musical conductors by comparing them to equivalently trained pianists. Conductors must focus their attention both on individual instruments and on larger sections of different instruments. We studied students and professionals in both domains to assess the contributions of age and training to these skills. Participants completed WM span tests for auditory and visual (notated) pitches and timing durations, as well as long-term memory tests. In three dichotic attention tasks, they were asked to detect small pitch and timing deviations from two melodic streams presented in baseline (separate streams), selective-attention (concentrating on only one stream), and divided-attention (concentrating on targets in both streams simultaneously) conditions. Conductors were better than pianists in detecting timing deviations in divided attention, and experts detected more targets than students. We found no group differences for WM capacity or for pitch deviations in the attention tasks, even after controlling for the older age of the experts. Musicians' WM spans across multimodal conditions were positively related to selective and divided attention. High-WM participants also had shorter reaction times in selective attention. Taken together, conductors showed higher attentional flexibility in successfully switching between different foci of attention.