This conclusion was reached by American scientists who compared the abilities of more than half a million people from around the world, speaking 54 languages, to feel the rhythm and melody. They published the results of their research in the journal Current Biology.
Tonal is a language in which each syllable is pronounced with a certain tone. Depending on this, the value also changes. Such languages are widely spoken in Southeast Asia and Africa. The most studied tonal language, of course, is Chinese.
In tonal languages, scientists have identified a subgroup of languages with musical accent (Pitch-accent language). These include, for example, Swedish, Norwegian, Slovenian, Croatian, Lithuanian, Japanese and Korean.
Non-native languages include such languages as Belarusian, Ukrainian, Russian, English, French, Arabic, Hindi. In them, the pitch can only be used to convey emotions or a question, and does not change the meaning of the word in any way.
The study involved speakers of 19 tonal languages, 29 non—tonal and 6 languages with musical stress.
The study participants were given three musical tasks that tested their ability to perceive melodies that were slightly different from each other (is it the same melody or another?), rhythm features (does the drum beat to the beat of the song?) and small differences in pitch (does the vocalist hit the notes?).
Depending on how well the participants solved the tasks, they were offered increasingly complex tests in which the differences in melody were more subtle, the rhythms beat almost to the beat, and the vocalist sang almost as it should.
In general, the researchers found that the type of native language is associated with the perception of melody and rhythm, but does not affect people’s ability to determine whether someone hits the notes or not.
The scientists noted that speakers of tonal languages on average distinguished melodies better than speakers of non-tonal languages and languages with a musical accent. This effect was measurable with the effect obtained during music lessons. But at the same time, these participants solved the task based on rhythm worse.
The latter came as a surprise to the researchers. The authors believe that this may be due to the fact that native speakers of a tonal language pay less attention to rhythm and more to pitch, because tone is more important for communication.
The question of whether native speakers of a tonal language can be more musical has already been studied before, but previous studies could not separate the impact of language from the influence of culture.
“Previous studies have mostly just compared native speakers of one language with others, usually English with Mandarin or Cantonese version of Chinese. However, native English and Chinese speakers differ in their cultural background and, perhaps, in how often and what kind of music they listened to and how they studied. It’s very difficult to rule out these cultural factors when you’re just comparing two groups.”, —
notes one of the authors of the study Jingxuan Liu, a psychologist from Duke University (USA).
The authors of the new study used a much wider sample and found that the influence of the native language on the perception of music persists regardless of culture, education and socio-economic status.
According to Liu, the results confirm the thesis that the pronounced sense of melody among speakers of tonal languages is associated with their common language experience, and not with cultural differences.
According to the authors of the study, there are still questions that require additional research.
For example, scientists were able to analyze the abilities of thousands of speakers of six languages with musical accent to perceive music. However, the results turned out to be incomprehensible and contradictory when using different methods of analysis. Native speakers of languages with musical stress also showed great variability within each language group.
As a result, scientists could not find any common strengths or weaknesses among the study participants. This is partly due to the fact, the researchers note, that languages with musical stress are more difficult to classify than tonal languages, since they use pitch differently.