Tonal language and perfect pitch

Tonal language and perfect pitch


Perfect pitch, or absolute pitch, is the ability to recognise or emulate the pitch of a musical note without any reference point. While perfect pitch is traditionally rare among European populations, where as few as 1 in 10,000 people have it, research has shown that this may have more to do with nurture than nature. 


In 1999, Professor Diana Deutsch of the University of California performed a study which found that native speakers of Vietnamese and Mandarin displayed a form of perfect pitch in their everyday speech. This led her to hypothesise that perfect pitch could be an extra-musical ability that can manifest in musicality, rather than a musical talent in and of itself. ‘Perfect pitch for years seemed like a beautiful gift – given only to a few genetically endowed people. But our research suggests that it might be available to virtually everybody,’ Deutsch said. She connected the possession of perfect pitch with speakers of tonal East Asian languages – languages in which a word’s meaning often depends on the tone in which it is pronounced. For example, the Mandarin word ‘ma’ means ‘mother’ when the vowel is a constant high pitch, but means ‘hemp’ when pronounced with a rising pitch. However, the question remained whether this precision in linguistic pitch transferred to musical tones. 


In 2004, Deutsch followed up her initial study with an investigation into perfect pitch in music, and discovered that Mandarin-speaking students at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China, were nine times more likely to have perfect pitch than students at the Eastman School of Music in New York, USA. However, as all of the Mandarin-speaking students in this study were East Asian, it was still up in the air whether perfect pitch may have a genetic component. 


Deutsch’s most recent study attempted to determine this. The study looked at 203 students from the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. The students were asked to identify 36 randomly-ordered notes across three octaves, and to self-report their musical, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, including their level of fluency in a tonal language. The results were clear: the students who spoke an East Asian language fluently scored near to 100per cent on the test, while those who were not fluent – both Caucasian and East Asian – scored the worst on average. 


MozartDeutsch acknowledges that it still remains to be discovered why and how it is that some speakers of non-tonal languages – Mozart, Sinatra et al., as well as Deutsch herself – have perfect pitch. She expects it to be related to either an exceptionally long ‘critical window’ for language (and tone) acquisition, a very early musical upbringing, or both. According to Deutsch, the research suggests that parents who want their kids to acquire perfect pitch should expose them to musical tones together with their verbal labels from infancy onwards. ‘It also raises,’ she says, ‘the interesting question: what other exceptional abilities might be latent in an infant that we could bring out if we only knew what ‘buttons’ to push?’