I discovered an old Radiolab podcast the other day on music and its relation to language and the brain. Three topics were covered: one was how people actually perceive music (the brain process literally) and how dissonance can cause the brain to react strangely (read: Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), a guy who managed to emulate classical composers by taking all the compositions and computing likely compositions and then finally the one that is most interesting, tonal languages and its relations to perfect pitch.

I recommend to the whole podcast, ‘cause it is insanely fascinating, but if you don’t have the time here’s the one on Mandarin and pitch. Diana Deutsch, a Professor in Psychology of music, found that tonal language learners who have it as their first language, are more likely to develop perfect pitch. For those not familiar with the term it “is the ability of a person to identify or re-create a given musical note without the benefit of an external reference” [1].

The Findings

She noticed that words often spoken at different times and different situations, had a very small variance in pitch difference. Thus their absolute pitch templates stayed the same. It was also found that comparing American and Chinese students, that Chinese students, even those that did not take music, far outperformed the American children in pitch exercises.

The findings of the former experiment’s paper were: “Speakers of Vietnamese and Mandarin possess an extraordinarily precise form of absolute pitch, which is reflected in their enunciation of words. Since all except one of the subjects in the study had received little or no musical training, we conclude that this ability resulted from their early acquisition of tone language, so that they had learned to associate pitches with meaningful words very early in life.”

Language Learners, Music and Tonal Languages

This is extremely fascinating. But what does really mean for language learners? I wonder how people with musical backgrounds and those lucky enough to have been born with perfect pitch adapt to tonal languages, in this case Mandarin. In my own experience, I grasped tones really easily and could replicate them from very early on. In my spare time I listen to a lot of music, I go to at least one gig/concert/club in a week and produce my own music too. Music is one of my passions. My musical theory sucks though. So I can’t “talk” music. I just know and “feel” it, however hippy that sounds.

I’d like to think that it helped me in grasp tones easier. The only thing that I have trouble with and still have is making the connection between different tones as a meaning difference. I can hear they sound different, but I still have to realize they are different words.

Are you battling with tones? Did you get them easy? Do you like music? Produce/compose music? Let me know! And please do yourself a favour and listen to that podcast. It’s fascinating!