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Do you have a tin ear? Perhaps learning a tonal language like Cantonese or Thai may help you improve your musical perception.

A study has found that people with little to no musical training who speak tonal languages – languages in which changing the pitch of a word alters its meaning – are able to process aspects of music just as well as trained musicians.

The research, conducted by scientists at Baycrest Health Sciences' Rotman Research Institute and the University of Toronto, shows for the first time that there is a bi-directional relationship between how the brain perceives music and language. While previous studies have found musical training can enhance language abilities, the latest findings suggest the opposite is true as well: Language experience can influence one's ability to process music.

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"Speaking a tone language does help you hear aspects of music better," says Gavin Bidelman, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis who led the study while at Baycrest. "No one's ever looked at that direction."

The findings bring researchers one step closer to understanding what Bidelman describes as "one of the biggest mysteries in the cognitive sciences" – the extent to which music and language overlap in the brain. "Across all time, all civilizations across history have two things: music and language. So what is so special about these two domains?" he says.

The study involved 54 adults, including English-speaking musicians, English-speaking non-musicians and Cantonese-speaking non-musicians. While English is atonal, Cantonese is based on six tones. The three groups were asked to perform a series of tests that gauged their general cognitive abilities, such as general intelligence and working memory (short-term retention and manipulation of information), and their ability to recall and discriminate between melodies and musical pitches.

The Cantonese group fared as well as the musicians on the musical tests, scoring up to 20 per cent better than the English-speaking non-musicians. In addition, the musicians and Cantonese participants showed greater working memory than the English-speaking non-musicians, leading the researchers to suggest that music training and tonal language experience may also be linked to increased general cognitive function.

Bidelman says that just because speakers of tonal languages are better able to hear music, it does not necessarily mean they are better able to play musical instruments. But he notes that, while it is yet unproven, "it is conceivable that they may learn them faster because they have the auditory acuity already built in."

He suggests that research into the bi-directional relationship between music and language may be useful for developing training and rehabilitation programs for individuals with dysfunctional speech such as stroke patients and patients with aphasia, who have difficulties with language because of illness or trauma to the brain.

It could also provide an incentive for parents to enroll children in both music and tonal language classes. While many now recognize the benefits of music training on early childhood development, bilingualism is proving to have cognitive benefits as well, Bidelman says. "You see that both music and language exposure have really pretty profound impacts on the brain."

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