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Tonal Language Speakers Have an Advantage in Musical Learning, Pitch Training

Cantonese Language
Speakers of tonal languages like Cantonese may be more attuned to music than English speakers. Youtube - NTDOffTheGreatWall

A new study finds that speakers of tonal languages like Cantonese and Vietnamese not only perceive music notes more finely than speakers of "flat" languages like English, but that their brains also process some aspects of music as well as those of trained musicians- yet another reason for monolingual Americans to feel inadequate.

Tonal languages, in which alternating pitch patterns change the meanings of words, are common throughout East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and among the native tongues of the Americas. Variations in tonal registers can sound musical, and are often difficult to grasp for native English speakers. While most commonly spoken Indo-European languages lack tonal variation, tonal languages like Vietnamese and Cantonese can convey meaning with as many as six different tones.

It's widely accepted that music and language abilities overlap in the brain, but like much about brain function, exactly how is still a mystery. Since pitch variations in tonal languages share qualities with pitch variations in music, those similarities are a promising topic for research.

Previous studies suggested that native tonal language speakers share certain learning patterns with trained musicians. Notably, tonal language speakers are far more likely to have perfect pitch- the ability to recognize the pitch of a musical note by ear.

Now, researchers at the Rotman Research Institute (RRI) in Toronto have found what they say is the strongest evidence yet that tonal language speakers may be more attuned to music. Furthermore, they suggest that tonal language speaking and musical learning are bi-directional skills- that is, having one ability might reinforce the other. Their study, supported by the GRAMMY Foundation, was published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

The study recruited 54 healthy 20-somethings from the Toronto area, who were screened into three groups: English-speaking instrumentalists with at least 10 years of training in Western classical music, English-speaking non-musicians, and non-musician Cantonese speakers who were raised in mainland China and learned English as a second language.

While participants wore headphones in a soundproof lab, they completed a variety of basic auditory and complex musical perception tests that measured their pitch memory, pitch processing speed, and ability to discriminate between complex musical tones and melodies. They also took cognitive tests that measured their working memory and general reasoning.

The results showed that trained musicians performed the best on basic auditory measures, but that Cantonese non-musicians matched them on the musical and cognitive tests and outperformed their English-speaking non-musician counterparts by 15 to 20 percent. The Cantonese participants' advantage did not seem to stem from bilingualism, which has proven cognitive advantages.

"For those who speak tonal languages, we believe their brain's auditory system is already enhanced to allow them to hear musical notes better and detect minute changes in pitch," said lead investigator Gavin Bidelman in a statement. "If you pick up an instrument, you may be able to acquire the skills faster to play that instrument because your brain has already built up these auditory perceptual advantages through speaking your native tonal language."

Don't panic yet, American tiger mothers- a head start doesn't automatically make a world-class musician. Chinese instrumentalists may have rapidly mastered the Western classical music canon, but that body of work was developed by-and-large by musicians who spoke atonal languages.

The researchers also believe that some tonal languages might give speakers more musical advantages than others. Cantonese, for example, might be particularly attuned to music because its pitch patterns resemble musical pitch patterns. Mandarin, on the other hand, may not be as helpful because it has more "curvilinear" tones, with pitch patterns that vary in time differently than how pitch occurs in music.

Bidelman is excited by the idea that music and language are mutually reinforcing areas of human cognition:

"If music and language are so intimately coupled, we may be able to design rehabilitation treatments that use musical training to help individuals improve speech-related functions that have been impaired due to age, aphasia or stroke," he said in the statement. He suggested that the reverse could be true as well- speech training programs for tonal language speakers might improve their musical listening skills.

The complete study is available for free on PLOS ONE.

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