Musical Ability and Tonal Languages: A Psychoacoustic Study of Transfer Effects in the Perception and Production of Tone in Two Domains

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D)


Psychology and Special Education

Date of Award

Fall 2012


It is a commonly held belief that the majority of adults have great difficulty acquiring near-native proficiency in the speech sounds of a foreign language. This is particularly true in the acquisition of lexical tone by native English speakers. This study examined whether the perception and production of language tones could be mediated by musical ability as measured by The Seashore Measures of Musical Talents (1939/1960), a test of vocal accuracy, and information from a survey on the participants' musical background. To test speech reception, speech passages taken from respondents' recorded conversations were filtered to remove all linguistic cues apart from prosody, and participants indicated whether 10-15s recorded passages they heard represented the prosodic patterns of their native language or a different one. Acoustical analyses were done to measure the participants' accuracy in imitating filtered speech sequences in Vietnamese and English, and results of both receptive and productive measures were compared to those of the musical assessments. The results indicated that, compared to players of other types of instruments, native-speaking English singers and players of self-tuning instruments were more sensitive to the prosodic contours of Vietnamese. Overall, native English speakers identified foreign prosody better than native prosody and imitated their own filtered language tones better than the foreign language. Musically talented individuals were found to be better imitators of both speech and musical tones, compared to those who did not indicate a musical background. These findings may inform language teaching practices in favor of a more aural, less analytical approach to tonal language teaching. The pedagogical implications are discussed.


Tracy Henley

Subject Categories

Education | Educational Psychology