Native language might shape musical ability

A global study offers another peek at how language influences cognition

A photo of a man and a woman sharing a pair of headphones while listening to music on a handheld device.

Native speakers of tonal languages have enhanced melodic perception but at the cost of rhythm, a study suggests.

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Your mother tongue may modify your musical ability.

Speaking a native language that requires tones appears to boost perception of melody, but at the cost of rhythm, researchers report April 26 in Current Biology. The massive global study hints at how language skills seep into other areas of cognition (SN: 3/29/23).

Tonal languages use pitch to distinguish words that otherwise might sound the same. In Mandarin, for instance, mă means horse whereas mā means mother. Nontonal languages like Spanish sometimes include pitch changes to suggest emotion, for example, but not to change a word’s meaning.

As a Mandarin speaker and flutist, Jingxuan Liu wondered about the crossover between language and music. While studying psychology as an undergraduate at Duke University, Liu helped analyze the musical abilities of nearly half a million people from 203 countries. Her colleagues had launched an online game in which participants completed several musical tasks, including identifying matching melodies at different pitches and finding beat tracks that fit songs’ rhythms.

On average, native speakers of the 19 represented tonal languages were better at the melody task compared with speakers of 29 nontonal languages. And the effect wasn’t small — a tonal first language enhanced melodic perception by about half the amount that music lessons did, which was also surveyed. But tonal language speakers tended to be worse at the rhythm task.

Humans must be choosy about what they pay attention to. Pitch patterns are vital in tonal languages, which might explain the musical trade-off. “You’ve got a finite resource of attention, and you’ve got to allocate that somehow,” says study coauthor Courtney Hilton, a cognitive scientist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Prior research on language and music often compared just two tongues, usually English and Cantonese or Mandarin. But other cultural influences, such as Eastern and Western music styles, could have affected results. By examining a wide range of people, the new study included languages never assessed in this way and reached more generalizable conclusions.

“Our result here is showing that the language someone speaks — which is an important part of culture — also shapes cognition,” Hilton says.

McKenzie Prillaman was the Spring 2023 science writing intern at Science News. She holds a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience with a minor in bioethics from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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