Thursday, January 24, 2008

Musical pitch a learned skill?

I just listened to a fascinating- FASCINATING- podcast from Robert Krulwich's Radio Lab. I believe it's a public radio show that plays in various markets, but we don't get it here, so I listen to it online. This particular show was about how the mind processes music. One expert they interviewed has discovered, in countries where language relies on pitch, that people she has tested from those countries have an immensely larger percentage of the population with perfect pitch. (The ability to identify the pitch of a note without seeing it on sheet music, for instance.)

Some of this is bound to be genetics, of course, but the researcher thinks her studies prove that much of one's ability to distinguish musical tones is a learned skill, acquired during those crucial early years when a child's mind is especially attuned to acquiring language.

Of course, all languages use pitch to some degree, but that's often related to sentence structure, such as the American style of ending questions on an up-note while British speakers often pitch the last syllable downward. But the sentence would still mean basically the same thing, regardless of pitch. This researcher's tests are based on the many Asian languages where
pitch will totally change the meaning of a word such as "ma."

Of course, it begs the question: if you and your children are "stuck" with a language which is not pitch-based, how can you cultivate that kind of ear in your own child? This show doesn't answer that question, but I think it would be a huge argument for exposing one's child to lots and lots of music EARLY. And not only lots of it, but lots of repetition, hearing the same songs over and over again. (And, of course, most children DO love hearing things over and over again. They seem to instinctively know that it's the best way for them to learn.)

Who knows, maybe that's the reason my younger son has such a well-tuned musical ear. When he was not quite two, he spent some months in a body cast. The only furniture that worked to support his odd plaster-encased posture was a bean bag chair where he spent a lot of that time in front of a simple music video of a man singing nursery rhymes while accompanying himself on the guitar. And when I saw a lot, I mean a LOT!

Anyway, here's a link to the show online. I think you can listen to it from the web, and of course also as a podcast. Check out all their other shows, too. They're all GREAT! Click here for the music podcast.

Kim Norman

JACK OF ALL TAILS, Dutton, June 2007 -- IT'S HERE!
THE CROCODADDY, Sterling, 2009

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