Chinese Corner

Name That Tune2 min read

Can learning a tonal language make you a better musician? – Eveline Chao


The part of the brain responsible for producing and understanding speech is called Broca’s area. As it happens, that area is also responsible for processing music.

There’s a lot of research suggesting that musical training also brings language-related benefits. One is that musicians learn second languages faster than non-musicians. “That’s not to say that if you play the guitar, you can immediately pick up Mandarin Chinese,” said Gavin Bidelman, director of the Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, on the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley in 2015. “But people with extensive musical training do tend to pick up some of the sound elements and phonological elements of a language faster.”

Another verbal skill improved by music training is the ability to distinguish speech in loud environments, like a cafe. Musician brains respond more “robustly” to speech and language, and also more precisely. “Musical training tunes the brain. Pun intended,” says Bidelman.

So, we know that musical training can enhance language ability. But what about the opposite: can language confer musical benefits?

Some obvious languages to look at are tonal languages, like Mandarin and Cantonese. (Mandarin and Cantonese are related and arguably separate languages, but that’s a story for another column.) Bidelman’s lab has run experiments involving three groups of people: English speakers with at least ten years of classical music training, English speakers with little to no musical training, and native Cantonese speakers with little to no musical training.

In one experiment, the groups heard a series of pitches and had to identify when the pitches were the same and when one was higher. The difference between the level pitch and the higher one grew smaller and smaller, testing how finely they could hear pitch differences.

Some experiments involved more complicated strings of pitches. In one of these, subjects heard two melodies that were either identical or differed by one out-of-tune note. They had to identify whether the melodies were the same or different.

Bidelman found that with the simpler tests, the Cantonese speakers and the musicians performed equally well, while the non-musician English speakers did worse. In the more complex tasks, like the one involving melody, the musicians did best, then the Cantonese speakers, and finally the non-musician English speakers. The advantage of speaking a tonal language was weaker, but still there. It seems that tonal languages do, in fact, help with musical processing. So if you really want to up your karaoke game, pick up some Cantonese – or Mandarin, or Thai, or Yoruba, or Navajo… ∎

An earlier version of this article appeared in That’s Shanghai. Featured image by Rory Finneren and used under terms of Creative Commons license.