The Effect of Musicality on Linguistic Tone Perception

Rhosean in front of laptop




Project Summary

This summer I worked on a linguistics project that explored the various cues people use to differentiate between pitch. We looked at this from two angles: a person’s native language and his/her musical ability. We wanted to see if natively speaking tonal languages—Chinese and Yoruba, specifically— meant that those speakers had different ways of looking at pitch than native speakers of non-tonal languages, like English, did. We also wanted to see if the skills that are associated with musical ability, like discerning rhythms and melodies, aligned with certain cues used to differentiate between pitch. To test this, we gave participants a variety of tasks related to pitch and musicality, the results of which we later analyzed.


There were many things, directly related to linguistics and otherwise, that I learned while working on this project. One of the first things I learned was how to use several linguistics-related computer programs. These were necessary for having participants do the study and for analyzing the results of the tasks they completed. Learning these programs was valuable because it opened me up to some of the skills I’ll need for a career in linguistics. Also, through this project, I learned more about linguistics in general. Before, I had only taken basic classes in the subject, so working on this project helped me develop a deeper understanding of subfields within linguistics. Interestingly, the project was in a subfield I had found confusing in class discussion, so my work this summer also helped to clarify things I had previously learned. Additionally, this project gave me a greater patience for working with others. Recruiting people to participate and explaining the tasks’ instructions made me see that, though I was working in a scientific field, my work would not be only formulaic and data-driven. I learned that much of my work also involved interacting with participants and accommodating their needs, whether that be a more detailed explanation or repeated rescheduling.