Tone deaf to the music of language

Amusia is a condition in which people can’t distinguish musical notes or tunes. This has been investigated for the first time in Mandarin Chinese, a language that relies on tones to convey meaning, with the study finding that music perception problems also affect the ability to distinguish spoken words in tone language speakers.

One common finding is that people with amusia have a difficulty with hearing the difference between two musical notes or sounds that are close together in pitch and it is suggested that this is the basic problem that underlies the condition.

Amusia can appear after brain injury, but it is also know that some people seem to be ‘born with it’. However, as most studies have been done on adults, it has never been clear exactly what role early experience plays in the development of the condition.

Most amusics report never having an interest in music, and it could be that a low-ability mixed with a lack of experience led to a more serious impairment in later life.

On the other hand, such a person might be less likely to have adult amusia if they grew up having to distinguish tones all the time – perhaps in a very musical family – or perhaps because of their language.

This is exactly the case with Mandarin Chinese, a tone language where speakers need to begin to distinguish closely related tones from birth.

For example, in Mandarin there are four different ways of changing the tone of a syllable and each give it an entirely different meaning. The researchers give the example of the syllable ‘ma’. When pronounced with with a level tone it means ‘mother’, while the identical syllable pronounced with a dipping tone means ‘horse’.

With this in mind, the researchers, led by psychologist Yun Nan, set about testing how many Mandarin speakers were amusic, and whether they could reliably detect the difference between speech tones.

Interestingly, amusia was no less rare in Mandarin speakers and those people with music perception difficulties show similar patterns found in studies of amusic people from the West who spoke non-tonal languages like English and French.

The Chinese people with music problems also had difficulties in distinguishing between syllables in their own language that differed in tone, to the point where a small number some seemed completely unable to detect the difference between key syllables.

This suggests that the condition of ‘amusia’ may be misnamed. It might not be a music specific problem, but just seems that way, because, in the West, it is one of the few situations where pitch distinction problems cause a problem.

Instead, a general problem with pitch perception might exist which interferes with anything which requires this fine grained distinction. Speakers of tonal languages, of course, will be affected more strongly.

Link to study summary and DOI entry.

4 thoughts on “Tone deaf to the music of language”

  1. But does the study show any actual difficulties with language comprehension for the amusic group? (“Amusic” is an amusing word.)

    Swedish also has words that are indistinguishable if spoken in constant pitch. “Tomten” means “the lot” (of land) if pitch is lowered on the last syllable, and “Santa Claus” if it is raised. But context gives enough clue to the meaning; it’s hard to think of a situation where this example would cause confusion. “Horse” vs. “mother”, I don’t know…

  2. I teach English in Indonesia, including to Miss Indonesia who did flubbed her interviews at Miss World in Las Vegas last year. A lot of Indonesians said they weren’t surprised because she was obviously not very bright in the first place. “Imagine, a beauty queen?”

    but was I surprised because she’s very musical and her accent in uncannily English good (as if she was simply imitating sounds). It turns out that this does matter and the phonological aspects of language learning are now getting more airtime viz a viz the phonetic. Being able to imitate sounds is critical to language learning. Being good at music and language is linked:

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