Tone Deafness in Music Does Not Preclude Distributional Learning of Nonnative Tonal Languages in Individuals With Congenital Amusia

Jiaqiang Zhu, Xiaoxiang Chen*, Fei Chen, Caicai Zhang*, Jing Shao, Seth Wiener

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review


    Purpose: Previous studies have shown that individuals with congenital amusia exhibit deficient pitch processing across music and language domains. This study investigated whether adult Chinese-speaking listeners with amusia were still able to learn Thai lexical tones based on stimulus frequency of statistical distribution via distributional learning, despite their degraded lexical tone perception.

    Method: Following a pretest–training–posttest design, 21 amusics and 23 typical, musically intact listeners were assigned into bimodal and unimodal distribution conditions. Listeners were asked to discriminate minimal pairs of Thai mid-level tone and falling tone superimposed on variable base syllables and uttered by different speakers. The perceptual accuracy for each test session and improvement from pretest to posttest were collected and analyzed between the two groups using generalized mixed-effects models.

    Results: When discriminating Thai lexical tones, amusics were less accurate than typical listeners. Nonetheless, similarly to control listeners, perceptual gains from pretest to posttest were observed in bimodally rather than unimodally trained amusics, as evidenced by both trained and nontrained test words.

    Conclusions: Amusics are able to learn lexical tones in a second or foreign context of speech. This extends previous research by showing that amusics' distributional learning of linguistic pitch remains largely preserved despite their degraded pitch processing. It is thus likely that manifestations of amusia in speech could not result from their abnormal statistical learning mechanism. This study meanwhile provides a heuristic approach for future studies to apply this paradigm into amusics' treatment to mitigate their pitch-processing disorder.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)2461-2477
    Number of pages17
    JournalJournal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research
    Issue number7
    Early online date2 Jun 2023
    Publication statusPublished - 12 Jul 2023

    Scopus Subject Areas

    • Speech and Hearing
    • Language and Linguistics
    • Linguistics and Language


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