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Tone language, absolute pitch, and cultural differences

Dear list,

I have been wondering why tone languages are related to absolute pitch (AP). In Taiwan, three tone languages are used. In all cases, we discriminate the tones of individual words according to the relationship between their pitches and the global pitch contour of a sentence. Cues of absolute pitches are of no use, as they vary a lot across the speakers and their emotional states. If I am asked to speak a Chinese sentence in different moods (e.g. happy and sad), the pitch of the same word can vary a lot, whereas the relationship between their pitches and the pitch contour of the sentence are approximately invariant.

It is important to note that even the relationship between their pitches and the pitch contour are just loosely preserved. A low frequency resolution and a high temporal resolution are needed for cognize Chinese utterances, which contain a lot of fast glissandos. People who do not understand Chinese may process Chinese utterances with the right temporal lobe, which is thought to subserve musical melody cognition with a high frequency resolution and a low temporal (Zatorre et al. 2002). Indeed, Klein et al. (2001) reported the hemispheric differences between activations for the Chinese and English subjects when listening to the same Chinese words. Compared with Chinese subjects, English subjects tended to use the right superior temporal gyrus to process this tone language. They do not understand that a low frequency resolution is enough and may appreciate Chinese utterances as music.

It is my feeling that some Western scientists misunderstand tone languages in Asia so that they relate them to absolute pitch - just like that some Asian music educators misunderstood Western tonal music so that they train their students AP. That is why most of Asian musicians possess AP (I do not exclude genetic influences), who tend to disembed individual tones in a chord instead of perceiving them holistically, although some of them possess both AP and RP (relative pitch). In fact, students without AP could be rejected by music colleges in Taiwan. The entrance examination of some music colleges includes 'crazy' listening tests such as four-part atonal music.

The situation has been improved in the last decade, as there are more and more music professors in Taiwan realizing the importance of the ability of 'real' RP. However, it appears not easy to 'undo' AP and sharpen RP for college students who have relied on AP in harmony cognition for more than ten years. I think AP training may lead to certain 'pruning' of the left planum temporale in a critical period.

A music professor in Taipei told me, he has AP and RP and his wife has only AP. "Fortunately, our sons have both AP and RP," he smiled.


Klein, D., Zatorre, R.J., Milner, B. & Zhao, V. (2001) A cross-linguistic PET study of tone perception in Mandarin Chinese and English speakers.  NeuroImage, 13, 646-653.
Zatorre, R.J., Belin, P. & Penhune, V.B. (2002) Structure and function of auditory cortex: music and speech.  Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6, 37-46.

Chen-Gia Tsai

Chen-Gia Tsai

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