East Asian Languages And Perfect Pitch

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THEHORN
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East Asian Languages And Perfect Pitch

Post by THEHORN » Thu Oct 15, 2009 5:49 pm

As a linguistics buff as well as a musician , I'm a member of the forum at the very interesting language site unilang.org I started a discussion the other day about scientific studies about perfect, or absolute pitch . There is evidence that people from east Asian countries such as China and Vietnam have an unusually high incidence of absolute pitch , apparently because of the fact that they speak tone languages, that is languages in which the meaning of words is affected by pitch .
For example, in Mandarin Chinese , the word Ma can have four completely different meanings based on the rise or fall of pitch in speaking .
It can mean either horse, mother, hemp, or to scold ! So if you are introducing some one to your mother , and use the wrong inflection, you would be saying, this is my horse, when you meant to say, this is my mother !
I have absolute pitch . How many here have it?
There is also evidence that those who begin learning musical instruments as children also have a higher incidence of absolute pitch . I started learning to play the horn when I was only 9.

Check out this article at sciencedaily.com/releases/20...172202.htm

Modernistfan
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Re: East Asian Languages And Perfect Pitch

Post by Modernistfan » Thu Oct 15, 2009 5:59 pm

Vietnamese is also a tonal language. When Robert McNamara was Secretary of Defense during the early part of the Vietnam war, he went over to Vietnam to give a speech to some government officials and intended to end it with the words: "Long Live the Republic of South Vietnam!" The audience broke out laughing; he had gotten the tones wrong and what he really said was;" The southern duck wants to lie down."

jbuck919
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Re: East Asian Languages And Perfect Pitch

Post by jbuck919 » Thu Oct 15, 2009 6:03 pm

One of my college classmates who went on to a career as a performer/scholar (specialist in choral music), who herself has absolute pitch, did a study of this for her own edification rather than publication and did not find any truth to the notion that people who speak tonal languages tend to have absolute pitch. Absolute pitch is wired in at birth, and while it might be more widespread among certain ethnic groups because of genetic drift, it probably bears no relationship with a people having a tonal language. In the first place, speakers/listeners of these languages rely on relative rather than absolute pitch. In the second, if you hear a language spoken tonally from the cradle, you will develop a very good sense of relative pitch, including the ability to remember a given pitch though not in the absolute sense, which as with many Western musicians is sometimes mistaken for absolute pitch. (I am sorry if that sounds terribly complicated; it is not an easy subject.)

Of interest would be the issue of how speakers of tonal languages who are truly tone deaf manage.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

jbuck919
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Re: East Asian Languages And Perfect Pitch

Post by jbuck919 » Thu Oct 15, 2009 6:08 pm

Modernistfan wrote:Vietnamese is also a tonal language. When Robert McNamara was Secretary of Defense during the early part of the Vietnam war, he went over to Vietnam to give a speech to some government officials and intended to end it with the words: "Long Live the Republic of South Vietnam!" The audience broke out laughing; he had gotten the tones wrong and what he really said was;" The southern duck wants to lie down."
That story may be true,* but I have read that in practice a great deal of conversation in these languages takes place with the meaning determined by context; tonality, as it were, is glossed over. Even Western ears can tell the difference between two people conversing and one person delivering a speech. Also, if the word-by-word tonality were absolutely essential, there would be no point in setting words to specific musical pitches, which is in fact a common practice.

Having said all that, I would like us to hear from Henry Living Stradivarius). If he says that what I have written is nonsense I will defer to him, just as I do in the Pub. :wink:

*It reminds me of the story of JFK at the Berlin Wall supposedly declaring himself to be a jelly doughnut. While it is a slight solecism to say Ich bin ein Berliner, nobody was laughing at him that day.
Last edited by jbuck919 on Thu Oct 15, 2009 10:06 pm, edited 2 times in total.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

lmpower
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Re: East Asian Languages And Perfect Pitch

Post by lmpower » Thu Oct 15, 2009 6:54 pm

Swedish and Norwegian are the only European languages that have this characteristic. It is called samansatt accent or musical pitch. Den heliga anden means the holy ghost when inflected, but it means the holy duck if you don't get the musical pitch right.

Imperfect Pitch
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Re: East Asian Languages And Perfect Pitch

Post by Imperfect Pitch » Thu Oct 15, 2009 8:35 pm

THEHORN wrote:I have absolute pitch . How many here have it?
Not me! (Surprised?)


THEHORN wrote:There is evidence that people from east Asian countries such as China and Vietnam have an unusually high incidence of absolute pitch , apparently because of the fact that they speak tone languages, that is languages in which the meaning of words is affected by pitch .
I agree with jbuck919: one would expect relative pitch to suffice for that purpose.

Sator
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Re: East Asian Languages And Perfect Pitch

Post by Sator » Fri Oct 16, 2009 6:19 am

BTW not all East Asian languages are tone languages. Japanese and Korean certainly aren't. Nor do I think is Ainu.

THEHORN
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Re: East Asian Languages And Perfect Pitch

Post by THEHORN » Fri Oct 16, 2009 9:23 am

Actually, there are several other tone languages in Euope, such as Serbo- Croatian, Slovenian , and Lithuanian . Most sub-saharan African languages are also tonal, as well as native-american languages such as Navaho and Apache .

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Re: East Asian Languages And Perfect Pitch

Post by karlhenning » Fri Oct 16, 2009 11:28 am

Imperfect Pitch wrote:I agree with jbuck919: one would expect relative pitch to suffice for that purpose.
QFT.

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Seán
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Re: East Asian Languages And Perfect Pitch

Post by Seán » Fri Oct 16, 2009 1:36 pm

BBC Classical Magazine covered this very topic in their issue in July. Here is a link to a PDF copy of the article:
http://deutsch.ucsd.edu/pdf/BBC_Mag_July_2009_37-38.pdf
Seán

"To appreciate the greatness of the Masters is to keep faith in the greatness of humanity." - Wilhelm Furtwängler

Imperfect Pitch
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Re: East Asian Languages And Perfect Pitch

Post by Imperfect Pitch » Fri Oct 16, 2009 1:43 pm

jbuck919 wrote:Absolute pitch is wired in at birth
Is that true? I thought it could be acquired. Here is Wikipedia's take (-of-the-moment) for what it's worth:

  • Nature vs. Nurture

    Many people have believed that musical ability itself is an inborn talent. Some scientists currently believe absolute pitch may have an underlying genetic basis and are trying to locate genetic correlates; while evidence suggesting a genetic locus has recently arisen, most believe that the acquisition of absolute pitch requires early training during a critical period of development, regardless of whether or not a genetic predisposition toward development exists. The "unlearning theory," first proposed by Abraham, has recently been revived by developmental psychologists who argue that every person possesses absolute pitch (as a mode of perceptual processing) as an infant, but that a shift in cognitive processing styles (from local, absolute processing to global, relational processing) causes most people to unlearn it; or, at least, causes children with musical training to discard absolute pitch as they learn to identify musical intervals. Additionally, any nascent absolute pitch may be lost simply by the lack of reinforcement or lack of clear advantages in most activities in which the developing child is involved. An unequivocal resolution to the ongoing debate would require controlled experiments that are both impractical and unethical.

    Researchers have been trying to teach absolute pitch ability for more than a century, and various commercial absolute-pitch training courses have been offered to the public since the early 1900s. Although it has been shown possible to learn to identify pitches, keys, and everyday sounds later in life, no training method for adults has yet been shown to produce abilities comparable to naturally occurring absolute pitch.

    For children aged 2–4, observations have suggested a certain method of music education may be successful in training absolute pitch, but the same method has also been shown to fail with students 5 years and older.

jbuck919
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Re: East Asian Languages And Perfect Pitch

Post by jbuck919 » Fri Oct 16, 2009 4:24 pm

Imperfect Pitch wrote:
jbuck919 wrote:Absolute pitch is wired in at birth
Is that true? I thought it could be acquired. Here is Wikipedia's take (-of-the-moment) for what it's worth:

  • Nature vs. Nurture

    Many people have believed that musical ability itself is an inborn talent. Some scientists currently believe absolute pitch may have an underlying genetic basis and are trying to locate genetic correlates; while evidence suggesting a genetic locus has recently arisen, most believe that the acquisition of absolute pitch requires early training during a critical period of development, regardless of whether or not a genetic predisposition toward development exists. The "unlearning theory," first proposed by Abraham, has recently been revived by developmental psychologists who argue that every person possesses absolute pitch (as a mode of perceptual processing) as an infant, but that a shift in cognitive processing styles (from local, absolute processing to global, relational processing) causes most people to unlearn it; or, at least, causes children with musical training to discard absolute pitch as they learn to identify musical intervals. Additionally, any nascent absolute pitch may be lost simply by the lack of reinforcement or lack of clear advantages in most activities in which the developing child is involved. An unequivocal resolution to the ongoing debate would require controlled experiments that are both impractical and unethical.

    Researchers have been trying to teach absolute pitch ability for more than a century, and various commercial absolute-pitch training courses have been offered to the public since the early 1900s. Although it has been shown possible to learn to identify pitches, keys, and everyday sounds later in life, no training method for adults has yet been shown to produce abilities comparable to naturally occurring absolute pitch.

    For children aged 2–4, observations have suggested a certain method of music education may be successful in training absolute pitch, but the same method has also been shown to fail with students 5 years and older.
Does it really make any difference whether it is strictly genetic or not? The point is one does not choose to have it or not to have it, nor can it be acquired or renounced after one is cognizant. It's sort of like sexual orientation that way, you see. :wink:

Speaking of the Wikipedia, it does a pretty good job with tonal languages, as far as I can tell. Not all the languages being mentioned here are strongly tonal the way Chinese is.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

Imperfect Pitch
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Re: East Asian Languages And Perfect Pitch

Post by Imperfect Pitch » Fri Oct 16, 2009 4:36 pm

jbuck919 wrote:Does it really make any difference whether it is strictly genetic or not?
I'm just trying to decide if I should order a copy of Hooked-on-Absolute-Phonics, or the equivalent. If there is a glimmer of hope, I might :-)

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Re: East Asian Languages And Perfect Pitch

Post by living_stradivarius » Sat Oct 17, 2009 12:27 am

jbuck919 wrote:That story may be true,* but I have read that in practice a great deal of conversation in these languages takes place with the meaning determined by context; tonality, as it were, is glossed over. Even Western ears can tell the difference between two people conversing and one person delivering a speech. Also, if the word-by-word tonality were absolutely essential, there would be no point in setting words to specific musical pitches, which is in fact a common practice.
Yes, the meaning is determined by context (usually all it takes is a verb or a preposition to create one); however, tonality itself can contribute to the formation of the sentence's context.

I can say from personal experience that a tonal language helps with relative pitch, though not necessarily with perfect pitch (I don't have it, but I do have A440 memorized for basis of comparison -- it's pseudo-perfect pitch :D). But even a subconscious awareness of tonal differences may contribute to the development of perfect pitch. Makes learning the violin easier.

Now the question is whether perfect pitch is a purely genetic characteristic of Asians that helped determine the type of languages they developed or whether those languages facilitated the development of perfect pitch.
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Re: East Asian Languages And Perfect Pitch

Post by Ken » Sat Oct 17, 2009 1:32 am

If I might indulge in a small aside, the more I learn about other languages, dialects, and accents, the more modest plain 'ol English (and Canadian English in particular!) seems in comparison. What I've heard and observed, anything-goes-English is relatively easy to learn and get right, though the idiomatic language is very difficult to pick up as English has comparatively few constant rules and requires a lot of accumulated vocabulary and speech-savviness. Colonial and sociopolitical history aside, it seems little wonder that English has become the 'world business language'.

On a musical note, the tone palette of native English speakers (especially 'Americans') seems modest compared to those of other languages. I wonder if these qualities make native English speakers especially unlikely to become classical musicians? Or if the improvisatory quality of the language predisposes us to careers as Jazz, Rock, or Hip-Hop artists?
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