Speakers Of Tonal Languages Better At Processing Music

The brains of people who speak a “tonal” language—that is, a language in which changing the pitch of a word alters its meaning—are better able to process music, a new study finds. Wency Leung reports in the Globe and Mail:

“The research, conducted by scientists at the Rotman Research Institute and the University of Toronto, shows for the first time that there is a bi-directional relationship between how the brain perceives music and language. While previous studies have found musical training can enhance language abilities, the latest findings suggest the opposite is true as well: Language experience can influence one’s ability to process music.

‘Speaking a tone language does help you hear aspects of music better,’ says Gavin Bidelman, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis who led the study while at Rotman. ‘No one’s ever looked at that direction.’

The study involved 54 adults, including English-speaking musicians, English-speaking non-musicians and Cantonese-speaking non-musicians. While English is atonal, Cantonese is based on six tones. The three groups were asked to perform a series of tests that gauged their general cognitive abilities, such as general intelligence and working memory, and their ability to recall and discriminate between melodies and musical pitches.

The Cantonese group fared as well as the musicians on the musical tests, scoring up to 20 per cent better than the English-speaking non-musicians. In addition, the musicians and Cantonese participants showed greater working memory than the English-speaking non-musicians, leading the researchers to suggest that music training and tonal language experience may also be linked to increased general cognitive function.

Bidelman says that just because speakers of tonal languages are better able to hear music, it does not necessarily mean they are better able to play musical instruments. But he notes that, while it is yet unproven, ‘it is conceivable that they may learn them faster because they have the auditory acuity already built in.’” (Read more here.)

Fascinating evidence of how our experiences and our cultures shape our abilities, in ways we are not even aware of until science brings them to light. A cautionary note, too, for those who are quick to attribute differences between groups to genes.

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