Lexicon Valley on the Musical Benefits of Tonal Languages

A show about the mysteries of English.
July 15 2013 3:02 PM

Can a Language Make You More Musical?

How tonal languages such as Cantonese might give would-be musicians a leg up.

Listen to Lexicon Valley Episode No. 31: Name That Tone

If you heard a pair of melodies that differ by just one note, could you tell the difference? If you heard three musical notes, one of which was a tad sharper than the other two, could you pick out the odd one? These are precisely the sorts of tasks that trained classical musicians are very good at. And it turns out that speakers of Cantonese, a language with a built-in series of musical-like tones, are pretty darn good at it, too—better it seems than speakers of English. Listen to Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo talk about how speaking a tonal language improves your musical ear. And you can try these musical tests yourself, because they’re included in the episode.

You'll find every Lexicon Valley episode at slate.com/lexiconvalley or in the player below:

Send your thoughts about the show to slatelexiconvalley@gmail.com.

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