We all know that some people have more natural musical ability than others. Everyone has heard of the composers like Mozart who composed complicated musical pieces at amazingly young ages. Today we are going to focus on a different talent: perfect pitch. Some people seem to be born with the ability to constantly sing at perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is the ability to sing a note or tone with extreme accuracy to the true tone. For example, if you told someone with perfect pitch to sing a C note, they could do so without hearing it on any instrument. Most people and musicians have what is called relative pitch meaning that they can find the other notes in a scale if they are given a reference pitch. It is important to note that perfect pitch is a rare ability. Only about 1 in 10,000 people in America and Europe have this ability.
What Does That Have to Do with Language?
Okay, native English speakers, I’m about to throw a little monkey-wrench into your world view. It turns out that there are other languages than English. For example, languages like Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamase, Thai, and several African language dialects are tonal. Tonal languages require the speaker to use a tone to clarify the meaning of a word. For example, the word ‘da’ in Mandarin Chinese can mean many different things depending on the tones it uses. It can mean “To hang over something,” “to answer,” “to hit” and “big” according to this website discussing accents and tones. From a very young age, speakers of tonal languages need to be able to understand pitch in order to avoid miscommunication. In a study done by Dr. Diana Deutsch, Vietnamese speakers were given a list of tonal words to say into a recording device. Several days later the exercise was repeated to astounding results. The speakers were able to repeat the words with the same tone. In a linguistic sense, these people had perfect pitch. This study was repeated with Mandarin Chinese speakers and revealed an even truer understanding of tone. To hear examples of this, check out the video at the bottom of this post.
In a different study consisting of Cantonese speakers, it became clear that Cantonese speakers were able to identify different tones and scales much better than English speaking participants. This second set of data seems to support the hypothesis that people who speak tonal languages are more easily able to distinguish individual tones than those who do not.
Dr. Diana Deutsch’s research turns up again in 2009 with a study prompted by her previous findings. This new study sought to find differences between tonal language speakers and non-tonal language speakers in the University of Southern California’s school of music. The students were given random notes in a three octave span and asked to identify the notes. Regardless of race, people who spoke tonal languages fluently (the blue line in the image) had better scores on the test than those who did not. Students who spoke a tonal language fairly fluently still had consistently better scores than nontone (English) speakers. In this study there is a significant correlation between speaking a tonal language and the ability to distinguish correct pitc It is important to also point out the correlation between age of first musical and ability to correctly choose between tones.
It is also of interest to note the apparent correlation between age of the first music lesson and the ability to identify notes. While this correlation is interesting, it requires its own thorough examination which will not be satisfied with this post.
Why Does it Matter?
Knowing the way the mind works in reference to pitch can be a very important learning tool. Tonal languages are incredibly difficult for native English speakers to learn, so perhaps music training could be a good tool for the transition between English and a tonal language. In the same way, there may be a benefit to using natural tonal language ability to teach music. It might also be possible to try and retain the perfect pitch young children are clearly able to pick up in order to speak tonal languages. If a child can learn 6 tone Cantonese, why couldn’t an American child learn perfect pitch as though it were a tonal language?
There is definitely a musical advantage to knowing a specific language if it is tonal. Children that know a tonal language are more likely to have perfect pitch than those who do not.
This bears the question of which methods of learning are transferrable from music to language and vice-versa. If scientists can unlock the secret to perfect pitch, the research could have an astounding effect on the musical community. It would soon be easier to sing in groups, perform an impromptu solo (in the right key), and sight-read pieces without hesitation. Music might become easier to learn and teach in the classroom if a scientific method to learning it can be devised.
If you have any questions, comments, experiences, or thoughts on this topic that you would like to share, please comment below.
For those of you who are extremely interested in this relationship between music and language, I suggest checking out this video lecture starting at minute 37 and 37 seconds.