Tonal languages, perfect pitch, and ethnicity

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Tone Language Is Key To Perfect Pitch:

In a study published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America and being presented at the ASA meeting in Portland on May 21, Deutsch and her coauthors find that musicians who speak an East Asian tone language fluently are much more likely to have perfect pitch.

In 2004, she found that students at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China, all of whom spoke Mandarin, were almost nine times more likely to have perfect pitch than students at the Eastman School of Music in New York. That last study, however, left open the question of whether perfect pitch might be a genetic trait – since all the Mandarin speakers were East Asian.

The present study looked at 203 students at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, all of whom agreed to take the test in class (so there was no self-selection in the sample). The students listened to the 36 notes that haphazardly spanned three octaves. They attempted to identify the notes, and they self-reported their musical, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds – including whether they were very fluent in an East Asian tone language, fairly fluent or not at all fluent. Deutsch and her colleagues found that students who spoke an East Asian tone language very fluently scored nearly 100 percent on the test, and that students who were only fairly fluent in a tone language scored lower overall. Those students – either Caucasian or East Asian – who were not at all fluent in speaking a tone language scored the worst on average.

The abstract makes it a bit clearer that East Asians who do not speak a tonal language are no better than Europeans.

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16 Comments

  1. Does Deutsch specify the number of individuals from the set of East Asians unable to speak a tone language who were nonetheless fluent in Korean, Japanese, etc.?

  2. This is a no-brainer. If you spend your entire life learning and speaking a tonal language, of course you’re going to be better at hearing and distinguishing music tone than someone who speaks a monotonic language as their mother language. All versions of Chinese languages as well as Thai and Vietnam are tonal languages. Japanese and Korean are monotonic. 
     
    Testing if the trait is genetic is simple. Run the same tests on Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, and Vietnamese. If the trait is not genetic, the Chinese and Vietnamese will all have perfect pitch, the Japanese and Koreans will not.

  3. Among the general populations, would similar proportions be tone deaf, I wonder?

  4. My guess is that it’s genetic and by adopting an atonal language you free up part of the brain for other tasks. 
     
    BTW, who else thinks Japanese sounds better than other East Asian languages?

  5. This is a no-brainer. If you spend your entire life learning and speaking a tonal language, of course you’re going to be better at hearing and distinguishing music tone than someone who speaks a monotonic language as their mother language. 
     
    How is this a “no-brainer.” Wouldn’t it be a sensible assumption that the meanings in the tones in tonal languages are based on relative intervals rather than absolute tones (else how could deep voices communicate with high pitched ones) and thus not requiring “perfect pitch”. Personally, I find these results surprising – absolute tone recognition is a talent I’d have figured to be innate, not learned.

  6. Ziel, 
     
    If you come from a monotonic language, learning a tonal language like Mandarin (5 tones) is really difficult. Languages like Cantonese and Thai are even harder because they have more tones and accents. You have to listen very carefully and sensitize yourself to always being aware of the tones. I think this sensitization would carry over into music, where you also have to be very aware of tone and pitch. 
     
    Some of the Northern Thai and Southwestern Chinese languages sound like they are singing rather than talking.

  7. If you’re interested and have a reasonably good ear for music you can learn perfect pitch. If there’s a piano around, a musician son uses it for parlor tricks. It’s a handy skill. 
     
    http://www.perfectpitch.com

  8. kurt9 says: 
     
    If you come from a monotonic language, learning a tonal language like Mandarin (5 tones) is really difficult. Languages like Cantonese and Thai are even harder because they have more tones and accents. 
     
    Sure, because everyone knows that non-tonal languages are monotonous and completely lacking in tone and that tone is what is so hard about those tonal languages. 
     
    The fact that they have grammatical structures that are so completely different from English, like (speaking only of Cantonese and Mandarin) Verb-Object forms or resultative complements or aspect instead of tense has nothing to do with the difficulty. Probably the fact that they have sounds that are different from languages like English also has nothing to do the the difficulty, and the orthography is a snap.

  9. I’m with ziel here. First, tones in tonal languages do indeed refer to pitch rather than absolute pitch. Also, the tones in Mandarin aren’t all level tones; some ‘tones’ are in fact tonal ‘shapes’ (rising, rising-falling). So the number of discrete ‘steps’ (pitch intervals) that Mandarin speakers would learn to recognize is rather limited, and certainly doesn’t correspond with the 12-semitones-to-the-octave used in Western music.  
    And then, what is ‘perfect’ pitch? So apparently some of the participants could identify (Western) notes. Would they also be able identify the quarter-tones used in Indian or Arab music (point of interest: Hindi, for instance, is an Indo-European, non-tonal language). And could the the Asian tone language speakers distinguish between equal-temperament intervals and ‘pure’ intervals? Would they be able to notice slight deviations from conventional pitches (e.g. an ‘a’ being played at, say, 443 rather than 440 Hz?). 
     
    Next, what about the phenomenon of downdrift, which AFAIK has been attested for tone languages as well as for intonation languages (not: ‘monotonous’ languages: have you ever listened to an Italian or a Brazilian, neither of which speak ‘tonw’ languages?) 
     
    Moreover, it seems odd to confine the experiment to speakers of Asian tone languages, precisely because of the role of tonal shape in those languages (as opposed to tonal level).  
     
    In fact, there are also ‘discrete level’ tone languages, most of which IIRC are spoken in Africa. But even then, it’s relative levels not absolute ones. And even African ‘level tone’ also have ‘downdrift’ as well as another phenomenon called ‘downstep’, which is a grammically conditioned relative drop in pitch. All of the above prevent specific words or syllables from being pronounced at a fixed, well-defined pitch. 
     
    I can imagine a speaker of a tone language (be it ‘contour-based’ or ‘level-based’ being more sensitive to tonal differences than non-tonal speakers. But that would refer to *relative* pitch (which is more musically relevant than perfect pitch anyway, although the latter can come in handy if you have to tune an instrument or have to start a piece a capella out of the blue without a reference not. I can see no obvious connection between ‘tone’ as it functions in languages and ‘perfect’ pitch (however defined).

  10. The ability to know purely by ear that someone playing a test tone at 440 Hz is playing an A cannot pre-date Helmholtz, can it? 
     
    I used to have perfect pitch and I lost it. As a child I always knew the exact pitch of every note I heard. But I loved Early Music, and started playing a lot of it. Most Early Music groups tune to A 415 instead of A 440. Constantly reading and playing music that my “perfect pitch” brain told me was wrong eventually destroyed my perfect pitch. I still have excellent relative pitch.

  11. ENwhiten: I love the sound of Japanese. I also love the sound of Swedish. Not coincidentally I suppose, they are both stress-pitch languages.

  12. Testing if the trait is genetic is simple. Run the same tests on Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, and Vietnamese. If the trait is not genetic, the Chinese and Vietnamese will all have perfect pitch, the Japanese and Koreans will not. 
     
    That’s not conclusive. There’s non-trivial genetic distance between Chinese and Vietnamese and Japanese and Koreans; you can’t use different populations as a basis of comparison. It would be better to use Chinese adoptees who’ve been raised in an utterly American environment as a basis for comparison with Chinese raised in a Chinese environment.

  13. I’m sure most of what I would note regarding this study as it relates to nature, nurture and selection have already been said by others, what I can add though is the anecdotal information that it appears to me that among people who grew up as Orthodox Jews there are fewer tone-deaf people than among people who grew up in communities where group singing is uncommon. Furthermore I would note that it would appear to me that MY OWN singing ability seemed to have dropped when I spent a few years away away from the Orthodox community and that it returned after a few short singing sessions some years later.  
     
    Just some anecdotal (and thus somewhat useless) information about what “seems” to me to be true. (I’m even more skeptical about my own anecdotal information than I am about that from others, though i probably shouldn’t be.) 
     
    mnuez

  14. FWIW, my sister has perfect pitch. There’s no reason she should. Grew up speaking English, in a not very musical household, and doesn’t have a lot of musical talent herself. She just has no problem recognizing which note a given sound is. She was pretty young when we in the family noticed it — maybe around five. We were monkeying around at the piano, talking about keys and notes, and from the other room she volunteered what the note was we were talking about. If she’s away from the piano for a looonnnnnggggg time (like a few years) she may need to get oriented before she’s back on track, but it only takes a few seconds. 
     
    So, in her case: genetics? Learned?

  15. Perfect pitch is genetic. You have to be learned out of it.  
     
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/02/010222074848.htm 
     
    What’s interesting is why some people retain perfect pitch, while speaking non-tonal languages. 
     
    I wonder how Navajo/Apache Indians would do. They speak a tonal language.

  16. It seems speakers of tonal and non-tonal languages are both represented across many racial lines though (other than it seems, Caucasoids/Indo-European areas having less tonal languages). 
     
    And why all the focus on East Asians? Majority of Sub-Saharan African languages are tonal.

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