Congenital amusia in speakers of a tone language: Association with lexical tone agnosia

Yun Nan*, Yanan Sun, Isabelle Peretz

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

134 Citations (Scopus)


Congenital amusia is a neurogenetic disorder that affects the processing of musical pitch in speakers of non-tonal languages like English and French. We assessed whether this musical disorder exists among speakers of Mandarin Chinese who use pitch to alter the meaning of words. Using the Montreal Battery of Evaluation of Amusia, we tested 117 healthy young Mandarin speakers with no self-declared musical problems and 22 individuals who reported musical difficulties and scored two standard deviations below the mean obtained by the Mandarin speakers without amusia. These 22 amusic individuals showed a similar pattern of musical impairment as did amusic speakers of non-tonal languages, by exhibiting a more pronounced deficit in melody than in rhythm processing. Furthermore, nearly half the tested amusics had impairments in the discrimination and identification of Mandarin lexical tones. Six showed marked impairments, displaying what could be called lexical tone agnosia, but had normal tone production. Our results show that speakers of tone languages such as Mandarin may experience musical pitch disorder despite early exposure to speech-relevant pitch contrasts. The observed association between the musical disorder and lexical tone difficulty indicates that the pitch disorder as defining congenital amusia is not specific to music or culture but is rather general in nature.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2635-2642
Number of pages8
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • congenital amusia
  • lexical tone
  • pitch perception
  • tone language


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