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10-04-2013 | Speech-language pathology | Article

Bidirectional transfer occurs between language and music domains


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medwireNews: Tone language speaking provides an advantage in processing pitch information required for music listening, a study finds.

Researchers report in PLOS ONE that native Cantonese speakers outperform English-speaking nonmusician counterparts on most measures of pitch and music perception.

"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," Gavin Bidelman (University of Memphis, Tennessee, USA) said in a press release.

Three groups of 18 adults participated in the experiment; English-speaking nonmusicians (NM), Cantonese-speaking nonmusicians(C), or English-speaking musicians (M).

While no differences were observed between the groups on the Raven's intelligence IQ score, musicians still showed a significantly larger working memory capacity relative to nonmusicians (NM and C combined) according to the Corsi blocks score. M participants performed better on this latter test than C participants to a marginally significant degree while the difference between C and NM participants was not significant.

Measures of basic auditory acuity found that M participants and Cantonese listeners had significantly better fundamental frequency difference limens, which measured the smallest change in pitch listeners can reliably detect, than the NM group by a factor of approximately 3.5.

M and C groups also had a significantly better temporal threshold for resolving directional changes in pitch, or pitch speed, than NMs.

Musicians were found to be more accurate and faster than C and NMs in short-term pitch memory. Additionally, Cantonese speakers were significantly better than NMs with regard to accuracy, while the reverse was true for reaction time (a time-accuracy tradeoff).

Comparisons of musical melody discrimination found a group effect for both half and quarter semitone conditions. In the half semitone condition a significant gradient in performance was seen with Ms having the highest, followed by Cs, and then by NMs, "suggesting a perceptual advantage for musical pitch in both musically trained and Cantonese-speaking individuals relative to English-speaking nonmusicians," write the mostly Canadian researchers.

Notably, pitch memory positively predicted melody discrimination for musicians. Yet, basic pitch sensitivity was a reliable predictor of melody discrimination for C and NM groups. This difference, the authors observed, may reflect a difference in listening strategy.

"Our findings offer new paths for conceptualizing learning and rehabilitation programs aimed at improving specific perceptual-cognitive function," conclude the authors.

medwireNews ( is an independent clinical news service provided by Springer Healthcare Limited. © Springer Healthcare Ltd; 2013

By Peter Sergo, medwireNews Reporter