Doing the (Musical) Time Warp with Michelle Phillips

Sit down and think of your favourite song. Could you approximate the duration of that Michelle Phillipssong in your head? As easy as this may sound, Michelle Phillips’ research has pointed out that we may be significantly worse at estimating the length of a song or piece than we think. It is astounding how time is so fleeting. Before madness takes its toll, however, listen closely for just a bit longer to how guest speaker Michelle talks us through the Musical Time Warp.

Michelle Phillips, not to be confused with singer/songwriter of the Mamas and the Papas, came along to Goldsmiths, University of London, on 15th November, to give us an overview on her latest work. Michelle currently studies with Dr. Ian Cross for a PhD at Cambridge University’s prestigious Centre for Music and Science and she completed a residency at London’s Science Museum in 2011 in order to collect data for her study on the phenomenon of musical time. The question that she sought to answer in obtaining this data was: what factors affect retrospective estimates of the time it takes to listen to a novel piece of music? Was it age, formal musical training, gratification from listening to music, or some combination of those factors? Do some of these factors affect the estimate more than others?

This study had 237 participants with ages ranging from 8 years old to over 80 years old. This great range of participants illustrates the fantastic opportunities for data collection that the Science Museum residency presents to researchers. All participants listened to a 37-second piece of music specifically written for this study by music researcher, Matthew Woolhouse, alongside a self-report questionnaire in which participants were asked to rate their experience of the music in terms of enjoyment, familiarity, valence, arousal, and finishedness on a scale of 1-7. In addition to this, some participants performed either a reference or a working memory task during the listening period: some experienced the same piece of music segmented into phrases by fading in and out to silence, and some experienced the piece at a different speed or with an increased level of dissonance. Michelle then instructed them to estimate how long it took them to listen to the musical piece from start to finish; the participants were not aware that she would ask them this question, so this experiment utilised a retrospective paradigm (estimating time of past experiences) and a verbal estimation method.

The majority of previous research (Block, 1997; Grondin, 2010) has largely focused on prospective estimate time (i.e. time as we are aware of it), so Michelle’s research offers a new viewpoint of musical time. Based on this previous research, she made four predictions about this experiment: firstly, that time estimates will be larger with age, especially in adults and teens; that children in the 5-8 year old age group will give more broad estimates of time because their concept of time at this age has not fully formed yet; that those who enjoy the music more will give longer estimates and that musically trained individuals will be more accurate in their estimations.

Michelle found that children in the aforementioned age group did, indeed, give much higher time estimates as compared to children in their early teens; furthermore, estimates of time increased from age 14 and up. The hypothesis regarding enjoyment and extended time estimates was also supported. She also found that musically trained individuals did give significantly shorter estimations, concluding that the contextual change model could explain these findings (Block & Zakay, 1997).

The contextual change model suggests that the perception of elapsed time seems longer if there are more changes in the environmental context, and because musicians are able to segment music in a more holistic (phrases or bars) rather than specific (notes) way, their perception of time is reduced because there seem to be less event changes to them. However, Michelle suggests a more attention-oriented explanation to account for the first three hypotheses (see Brown, 2008). She suggests that individuals who appreciated the stimulus the most gave the piece more attention than the others. Brown (2008) hypothesises that increased focused attention leads to longer time estimates, which would certainly account for this finding. Furthermore, the older participants in the samples were more likely to have allocated their attention to the piece; this again explains the findings concerning age. Finally, quantitative data confirmed anecdotal evidence suggesting that teachers’ estimations were somewhat decreased as compared to other professions.

Michelle’s research showed that the perception of time duration when listening to music is flexible, and is affected by non-musical and musical factors, including enjoyment, finishedness, age and musical training, in addition to whether working memory is being utilised whilst listening. Her work is comprehensive and thorough, while maintaining a very broad scope, laying the foundation for more detailed future investigations into particular effects, such as the impact of different emotional states upon estimates and possible interactions between factors such as age and tempo. It is clear from her results that music, as a complex, hierarchically structured stimulus, influences time perception in ways not satisfactorily accounted for by current cognitive models, and there is much exciting work to be done towards the construction of more suitable models.

Let’s do the (Musical) Time Warp again!

To discover more about Michelle’s research interests, go to and to read some further information on the Live Science program at London’s Science Museum, click here.

Fatima Al-Toma, Sinead McKenna Favier and Nick Sigsworth


1.)    Block, R.A., & Zakay, D.: Prospective and retrospective duration judgments: A meta-analytic review. Psychonomic Bulletin &Review, 4(2), 184-197 (1997)

2.)    Brown, S.W.: Time and Attention: Review of the Literature. In: Grondin, S. (ed.) Psychology of Time, pp. 111-138. Emerald Group Publishing Ltd., Bingley (2008)

3.)    Grondin, S.: Timing and time perception: A review of recent behavioural and neuroscience findings and theoretical directions. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 72(3), 561-582 (2010)

4.)    Phillips, M., & Cross, I.: About Musical Time – Effect of Age, Enjoyment, and Practical musical Experience on Retrospective Estimate of Elapsed Duration during Music Listening. In: Vatakis, A. (ed.) Time and Time Perception, pp. 125-136. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg (2011)

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