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Language and Musical Ability

September 29, 2012

Students in my linguistics class often bring up questions about the connection between musical ability and language ability.  Do some people naturally have more of an “ear” for language, the way people have an ear for music?  The connection seems logical, especially when you think about the musical nature of the rhythm and intonation patterns in English.

We can look at the question from several different points of view. I’ll handle this one first:

Does language influence musical ability?

Diana Deutsch, UCSD Department of Psychology, has done research comparing the prevalence of absolute pitch in Chinese versus English Speakers.  Absolute pitch (also know as perfect pitch) is “the ability to name or produce a musical note of particular pitch without benefit of a reference note.”  Chinese is a tonal language, meaning that a phonetic word (such as “ma”) has a different meaning when pronounced with a different tone (high, low, rising or falling).  English is a nontonal language, meaning that the tone with which you pronounce an individual word does not change it’s meaning.  In other words, if you say “ma” with a high tone or a low tone in English, it means the same thing, but tone gives the word in Chinese a completely different meaning.

The study compared two groups of music students: fluent native speakers of tonal and nontonal languages.  The results showed that speakers of the tonal language had a higher incidence of absolute pitch than speakers of a nontonal language, suggesting that “infants can acquire absolute pitch as a feature of speech, which can then carry over to music.”

Implications for L2 Listening

Since this study focused on listening to and identifying musical notes, it does not have direct implications for listening to speech, although presumably a sensitivity to tone and pitch could be beneficial in second language learning.  However, it is an interesting piece of the puzzle connecting language and music.  I’ll look more at other aspects of this connection in my upcoming posts.

References

Deutsch, D., T. Henthorn, et al. (2004). Perfect Pitch in Tone Language Speakers Carries Over to Music: Potential for Acquiring the Coveted Musical Ability May be Universal at Birth. 148th ASA Meeting. San Diego, CA. 2012.

Links

A good audio slideshow from Scientific American illustrating Dr. Deutsch’s work
Diana Deutsch’s home page with links to her papers

From → Music, Perception

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