Psychologists at the University of California in San Diego found that children who learnt Mandarin as babies were far more likely to have perfect pitch – the ability to name or sing a musical note at will – than those raised to speak English. Perfect pitch, though common among the great composers, is extremely rare in Europe and the US, where just one in 10,000 is thought to have the skill.
Diana Deutsch, who led the research, believes the explanation lies in the different use of tones in the two languages. While the meaning of English words does not change with tone, the same is not true for Mandarin and other tonal languages, such as Vietnamese, Thai, and other Chinese dialects.
For example, in Mandarin, the word ma has four meanings. Depending on tone, it can mean mother, horse, hemp, or be a reproach.
Among conservatory students in Beijing who began music lessons before the age of five, 60 percent had perfect pitch. Only 14 percent of U.S. conservatory students with early music lessons had perfect pitch. In both groups, delaying music lessons dramatically lowered the chances of developing perfect pitch. An alternative to Mandarin, a psychologist said, “might be to let babies play with keyboards with different notes labelled or coloured in.”