Report Finds Asians, Africans and South Americans Might Make Better Musicians

Posted April 2nd, 2013 at 10:08 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra peforming at the 2009 East Asian Games Closing Ceremony (Tksteven via Wikimedia Commons)

Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra performing at the 2009 East Asian Games Closing Ceremony (Tksteven via Wikimedia Commons)

If you speak a tonal language like Cantonese or Vietnamese, you might have a better ear for learning musical notes, even if you’re not a musician.

Tonal languages, found mostly in Asia, Africa and South America, are those that use a number of high and low pitch sounds in patterns of speech.  In these languages, slight changes in pitch can greatly change the meaning of a word.

According to Canadian researchers, the Vietnamese language, for example, has 11 different vowel sounds and six different tones. Cantonese also uses a complex six-tone system, while languages such as English have no tones within its speech patterns.

In findings published today, researchers at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto say they’ve found compelling proof that speaking a tonal language may enhance the way the brain hears music.

Neuroscientists also have a reason to be excited about the findings because they provide the first strong evidence that music and language, which scientists say share overlapping brain structures, have bi-directional benefits.

Do tonal language speakers have an edge when it comes to learning music? (Tulane University Public Relations)

Do tonal language speakers have an edge when it comes to learning music? (Tulane University Public Relations)

“For those who speak tonal languages, we believe their brain’s auditory system is already enhanced to allow them to hear musical notes better and detect minute changes in pitch,” said lead investigator Gavin Bidelman. “If you pick up an instrument, you may be able to acquire the skills faster to play that instrument because your brain has already built up these auditory perceptual advantages through speaking your native tonal language.”

However, speaking a tonal language don’t necessarily make for better musicians, since musicianship involves many more skills and abilities than just the sense of hearing.

The researchers said that knowing music and language, which are two important areas of human cognition, can actually influence each other, and may offer ways to develop new approaches in rehabilitation for people with speech and language difficulties.

“If music and language are so intimately coupled, we may be able to design rehabilitation treatments that use musical training to help individuals improve speech-related functions that have been impaired due to age, aphasia or stroke,” Bidelman said.

Could a well-developed speech and language training program help improve a person’s musical listening skills? (Public Domain via Pixabay)

Could a well-developed speech and language training program help improve a person’s musical listening skills? (Public Domain via Pixabay)

Researchers think the benefits of this music-language coupling might also work in reverse, so that well-developed speech and language training programs could improve a person’s musical listening skills.

Not all tonal languages offer the same music listening benefits as Cantonese.

The researchers found that Mandarin, for example, “has more ‘curved’ tones and the pitch patterns vary with time,” which is quite different from how pitch is used in music.

Musical pitch, Bidelman said, resembles “stair step, level pitch patterns” which happen to share similarities with the Cantonese language.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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One Response to “Report Finds Asians, Africans and South Americans Might Make Better Musicians”

  1. [...] A study finds a person who speaks a tonal language, like Vietnamese, “might have a better ear for learning musical notes.” [Photo by Tksteven (via [...]