Language experience shapes music processing across 40 tonal, pitch-accented, and non-tonal languages

Journal Article

Tonal languages differ from other languages in their use of pitch (tones) to distinguish words. Some research suggests that the linguistic pitch expertise of tonal language speakers may generalize to improved discrimination of some aspects of musical pitch: tonal language speakers may therefore have music perception advantages over speakers of other languages. The evidence is mixed, however, as prior studies have studied small numbers of participants in only a few tonal languages and countries, making it challenging to disentangle the effects of linguistic experience from variability in music training experience, cultural differences, and so on. Here, we report an assessment of music perception skill in native speakers of 40 languages, with a preregistered exploratory-confirmatory design, including tonal (e.g., Mandarin, Vietnamese), pitch-accented (e.g., Japanese, Croatian), and non-tonal (e.g., Spanish, Hungarian) languages. Whether or not participants had taken music lessons, native speakers of tonal languages (confirmatory n = 20,102) had an improved ability to discriminate musical melodies. But this improvement came with a trade-off: relative to speakers of pitch-accented (confirmatory n = 9,694) or non-tonal languages (confirmatory n = 242,096), tonal speakers were worse at discriminating fine-scale pitch-tuning and worse at processing the musical beat. These results, which held across 5 tonal languages and were robust to geographic and demographic variation, demonstrate that linguistic experience shapes music perception ability, with implications for relations between music, language, and culture in the human mind.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Liu, J; Hilton, CB; Bergelson, E; Mehr, SA

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1101/2021.10.18.464888