Tone Language Translates To Perfect Pitch
Shows Mandarin Speakers More Likely to Acquire Rare Musical
By Inga Kiderra
Could it be that
cellist Yo-Yo Ma owes his perfect musical pitch to his Chinese
parents? While we may never know the definitive answer, new
research from the University of California, San Diego has found
a strong link between speaking a tone language – such
as Mandarin – and having perfect pitch, the ability once
thought to be the rare province of super-talented musicians.
The first large-scale,
direct-test study to be conducted on perfect pitch, led by psychology
professor Diana Deutsch of UC San Diego, has found that native
tone language speakers are almost nine times more likely to
have the ability.
Results will be presented
Nov. 17 at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America
in San Diego.
Perfect, or absolute,
pitch is the ability to name or produce a musical note of particular
pitch without the benefit of a reference note. The visual equivalent
is calling a red apple “red.” While most people
do this effortlessly, without, for example, having to compare
a red to a green apple, perfect pitch is extremely rare in the
U.S. and Europe, with an estimated prevalence in the general
population of less than one in 10,000.
Tone languages –
Mandarin and Vietnamese, among many others – are those
in which words take on entirely different meanings depending
on the tones in which they are enunciated. In Mandarin, for
example, the word “ma” means “mother”
when spoken in the first tone, “hemp” when spoken
in the second tone, “horse” in the third and a reproach
in the fourth. (Tone is not to be confused with shades of meaning
imparted by intonation; saying something sarcastically, for
instance, or rising at the end of a sentence to indicate a question.)
Deutsch and her co-authors
measured the prevalence of perfect pitch by means of a direct,
on-site test in two populations of music students: a group of
88 first-year students enrolled at the prestigious Central Conservatory
of Music in Beijing, China, all of whom spoke Mandarin, and
a group of 115 first-years at the Eastman School of Music in
Rochester, New York, none of whom spoke a tone language.
The test consisted
of 36 piano notes spanning a three-octave range, generated by
a Kurzweil synthesizer. To minimize the use of relative pitch
(a much more common ability where listeners rely on reference
notes for help), all intervals between successive tones were
larger than an octave. Perfect pitch was defined as a score
of 85 percent correct.
“We found a very
clear difference between the two populations,” Deutsch
said. “In Mandarin speakers, perfect pitch appears to
be not rare, but rather a readily acquired ability.
“We also found
a striking effect of age of onset of musical training,”
In both groups, the
earlier an individual began music lessons, the more likely he
or she was to have perfect pitch. But the incidence was substantially
higher in the Chinese Mandarin speakers of the Central Conservatory.
For students who had
begun musical training between ages 4 and 5, approximately 60
percent of the Chinese speakers tested as having perfect pitch,
while only about 14 percent of the U.S. nontone language speakers
did. For those who had begun training between 6 and 7, approximately
55 percent of the Chinese and 6 percent of the U.S. met the
criterion. And for those beginning between 8 and 9, the figures
were 42 percent of the Chinese and zero of the U.S. group.
The discrepancies were
greater when the researchers allowed for semitone errors (that
is, giving the subjects credit for a note missed by a half-note,
or answering “C” for “C sharp”): Fully
74 percent of the Chinese students had perfect pitch if they
had started musical training between ages 4 and 5.
There were no differences
depending on gender, in either group or any subgroup, Deutsch
noted. Also, all those who were asked to participate, did, thereby
eliminating the self-selection bias which plagues survey studies.
The study results,
Deutsch said, “are very like what you would expect if
you were dealing with a speech-related system. Tone appears
to be analogous to vowel quality and other linguistic features
acquired during infancy.
support the notion that babies can acquire perfect pitch as
part of learning a language, which can later generalize to musical
tones,” Deutsch said. “Indeed, the results for acquisition
of absolute pitch in tone and nontone language speakers reflect
a very similar picture, in terms of timeframe, to the critical
periods inferred by linguists for acquiring first and second
In other words, Deutsch
suggests, perfect musical pitch functions much like a second
language to tone speakers: If you’re fluent in Mandarin,
learning the tones of Cantonese – and perfect pitch –
will be much easier than if you’re an English speaker.
The study follows up
on one Deutsch led in 1999, which found that native speakers
of Vietnamese and Mandarin exhibited a “remarkably precise
and stable form of absolute pitch in enunciating words,”
leading Deutsch to hypothesize then that pitch was an extra-musical
on the present study are: Trevor Henthorn, also of UCSD; Elizabeth
Marvin, professor of music theory, Eastman School of Music;
and HongShuai Xu, graduate student, College of Music, Capital
Normal University in Beijing.
The study, with graphic
figures of the results and sound files of the test, is available
A top authority on
musical perception, Deutsch is the editor of “The Psychology
of Music” (2nd edition 1999) and is the founding president
of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition. Her past
research has explored the way we hold musical information in
memory and how we relate the sounds of music and speech to each
other. Deutsch has discovered a number of musical illusions
and paradoxes, including the tritone paradox, which established
that different cultural groups often perceive identical notes
of music differently.
Media Contact: Inga
Kiderra, (858) 822-0661