Ma, ma, ma and ma

Brian Micklethwait links to an intriguing story: Perfect pitch is far more common in music students who speak Mandarin, a tonal language, than among native English speakers, according to a new study.

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.”

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  1. marcus aurelius says:

    Why assume that language differences are responsible? Isn’t there a simpler explanation — that genetic differences between these populations account for the difference in perfect pitch ability?

    Another plausible explanation is the differences between the Chinese and American systems of music education.

    I haven’t read the study (the Guardian provides no link), so perhaps the researchers have accounted for these possibilities. But why don’t reporters feel the need to mention alternate explanations?

  2. The old adage about perfect pitch that I’ve heard among musicians is that “perfect pitch is the pitch of your grandmother’s piano.” It’s something that’s learned during childhood, not something genetic. Besides, consider the fact that, before 1911, middle A could be anywhere from 395 to 512 hertz, and that one person’s internalized pitch system could be completely different than another’s. Now that A has been standardized at 440 Hz and we have a standard tuning system, someone with absolute pitch in China would have the internalized pitch as someone in Paris.

    There are also some musicians for whom perfect pitch would be a disadvantage, believe it or not. Anyone who plays a transposing instrument, e.g. trumpet, clarinet, saxophone, or horn, read a note but sound a different pitch on their instrument, so absolute pitch means more work for the performer. It’s especially bad for hornists, who may have to read parts in three different keys during a single concert.

    Even singers can get annoyed by absolute pitch, since groups will sometimes transpose pieces up or down based on the singers’ voices. Again, absolute pitch means more work.

    My point? Non-musicians make such a big deal about perfect pitch, when it’s really a blessing and a curse, depending on what one’s doing. And with the regard to the biological vs. learned nature of absolute pitch, it’s my strong belief that it’s learned.

  3. First, absolute pitch (perfect pitch) isn’t an unambiguous blessing in music. Organists depend on the ability to transpose on the fly, which requires more training for musicians with absolute pitch (the tonal differences are very distracting) without. In fact, this may have something to do with why Chinese classical music didn’t develop the same way western music did.

    Second, the test mentioned (playing notes on a piano and asking for the names) may not be sufficient. There are people who find it easy to identify piano tones, but who would not be able to tell if the entire piano got retuned 2 Hz down.

  4. Sorry Adrian, you slipped in.

  5. Boo, speaking of hearing an out-of-tune piano grating against absolute pitch, I’ll always remember the look on my piano prof’s face when he heard a recording of the Bach “Little” Fugue in G Minor at A=415. Absolutely priceless!

  6. marcus aurelius suggested that genetic or educational differences may account for the difference in perfect pitch. While those are interesting hypotheses, I don’t think the first one would stand up to scrutiny.

    In my opinion, a much better way to test this hypothesis is to do the same kind of research in other populations of tone-language speakers, e.g., Thailand or Vietnam. If you get similar results, you’re on to something.

    As for genetics accounting for this result, well, the differences amongst the various human populations are extraordinarily superficial, and many scientists discount the notion of “race” entirely. I think the default hypothesis is that all humans are the same, and that differences between groups are best accounted for by environment or culture. (Incidentally, the Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese are all different ethnic groups, so a similar result for the development of perfect pitch in the latter two goes against the genetic hypothesis.)

    As for differences in music education, that has some merit. First question: do they teach perfect pitch in music classes in China? If so, you’re on to something. If not, you have a long haul in front of you.

    Incidentally, perfect pitch is a skill some people can teach themselves. As noted above, it’s a double-edged sword.