Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Enhanced Production and Perception of Musical Pitch in Tone Language Speakers

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Enhanced Production and Perception of Musical Pitch in Tone Language Speakers

Article excerpt

Individuals differ markedly with respect to how well they can imitate pitch through singing and in their ability to perceive pitch differences. We explored whether the use of pitch in one's native language can account for some of the differences in these abilities. Results from two studies suggest that individuals whose native language is a tone language, in which pitch contributes to word meaning, are better able to imitate (through singing) and perceptually discriminate musical pitch. These findings support the view that language acquisition fine-tunes the processing of critical auditory dimensions in the speech signal and that this fine-tuning can be carried over into nonlinguistic domains.

Pitch plays a prominent role in the structure of both speech and music. For music, pitch conveys information about tonality (e.g., Krumhansl, 1990), harmonic changes (e.g., Holleran, Jones, & Butler, 1995), phrase boundaries (e.g., Deliège, 1987), rhythm and meter (e.g., Jones, 1987), and the likelihood of future events (e.g., Narmour, 1990). For speech, it conveys information about word stress, utterance accent, pragmatic stance, and speaker emotion (Cruttenden, 1997). For the large class of languages known as tone languages, pitch conveys information about lexical meaning as well (Yip, 2002).

Given the vital importance of pitch for human communication, it is intriguing to note the degree to which individuals vary in their ability to produce and perceive pitch. Such individual differences are most apparent in studies of singing. A majority of individuals claim to be unable to imitate melodies by singing (Pfordresher & Brown, 2007) and therefore often describe themselves as "tone deaf " (Cuddy, Balkwill, Peretz, & Holden, 2005; Sloboda, Wise, & Peretz, 2005; Wise & Sloboda, 2008). Although poor singing appears to be less prevalent than self-assessments would indicate, inaccurate singing does affect a sizable minority of the population: 15%-20% of nonmusicians (Dalla Bella, Giguère, & Peretz, 2007; Pfordresher & Brown, 2007). With regard to perception, tasks as straightforward as pitch discrimination show significant individual differences as well (e.g., Amir, Amir, & Kishon-Rabin, 2003), and a small subset of the population (perhaps 5%) appears to be deficient in the discrimination of musical pitch (e.g., Peretz et al., 2002). Whereas musical pitch processing is clearly mediated by multiple cognitive processes (Peretz & Coltheart, 2003), our interest in the present study was to examine one potential mediating variable: the tonal properties of one's native language. The research summarized above did not incorporate linguistic background as a potential factor in individual differences, although there is reason to believe that tone languages may facilitate musical pitch processing.

The world's languages can be classified as either tone or intonation languages on the basis of whether they employ pitch to convey word meanings (Yip, 2002). Tone languages, which represent roughly two thirds of all languages in use, use pitch height and/or pitch changes to convey word meanings, whereas intonation languages do not. A popular example from the Chinese tone language Mandarin is that the syllable /ma/ can be associated with at least four different unrelated meanings on the basis of the tone used. For some tone languages, including many of the Asian tone languages, lexical information is conveyed via contours (i.e., pitch intervals), whereas in others, including many African tone languages, lexical information is conveyed via pitch height rather than contours per se (Yip, 2002). An individual who acquires a tone language must form strong associations between pitches and word meanings both for speech production and speech perception; possibly as a result, adult speakers of tone languages produce highly consistent pitch contours (Deutsch, Henthorn, & Dolson, 2004).

In contrast, intonation languages, such as English, employ pitch to convey information about syllable stress, sentence focus, and speaker attitude, such that mappings between pitch and meaning are much more coarse grained than is typically the case for tone languages. …

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