Are lexical tones musical? Native language's influence on neural response to pitch in different domains

Ao Chen*, Varghese Peter, Frank Wijnen, Hugo Schnack, Denis Burnham

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    18 Citations (Scopus)


    Language experience shapes musical and speech pitch processing. We investigated whether speaking a lexical tone language natively modulates neural processing of pitch in language and music as well as their correlation. We tested tone language (Mandarin Chinese), and non-tone language (Dutch) listeners in a passive oddball paradigm measuring mismatch negativity (MMN) for (i) Chinese lexical tones and (ii) three-note musical melodies with similar pitch contours. For lexical tones, Chinese listeners showed a later MMN peak than the non-tone language listeners, whereas for MMN amplitude there were no significant differences between groups. Dutch participants also showed a late discriminative negativity (LDN). In the music condition two MMNs, corresponding to the two notes that differed between the standard and the deviant were found for both groups, and an LDN were found for both the Dutch and the Chinese listeners. The music MMNs were significantly right lateralized. Importantly, significant correlations were found between the lexical tone and the music MMNs for the Dutch but not the Chinese participants. The results suggest that speaking a tone language natively does not necessarily enhance neural responses to pitch either in language or in music, but that it does change the nature of neural pitch processing: non-tone language speakers appear to perceive lexical tones as musical, whereas for tone language speakers, lexical tones and music may activate different neural networks. Neural resources seem to be assigned differently for the lexical tones and for musical melodies, presumably depending on the presence or absence of long-term phonological memory traces.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)31-41
    Number of pages11
    JournalBrain and Language
    Publication statusPublished - May 2018


    • lexical tones
    • musical pitch
    • mismatch negativity
    • cross-domain correlation


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