How Do We Think About Pitch?

In linguistic relativity research, there is quite a bit of literature on metaphors and how they affect our perceptions of the world. Metaphors are built on language, and if it can be shown that people use those metaphors to think with, that would be taken as pretty solid evidence that language affects the way we think.

I have written a bit about the psychology and neuroscience of music in the past, and I am going to continue in that vein in the near future with a few more posts. I think this is a really fascinating area of study, and I have been reading some great research lately that needs to be shared. Lera Boroditsky has done some great work on metaphors of space and time, and if you are interested, I recommend you look her up.

A new study came out last year that brought metaphor research into the realm of music — more specifically, to pitch perception. The researchers used speakers of Dutch (which uses “high” and “low” to describe pitches, as we do in English) and Farsi (which uses “thin” and “thick” to describe these pitches) to see how language might affect the perception of pitch.

The experimenters played tones to each group and asked them to sing the tone back at the correct pitch. The catch is that a line was displayed on a screen while the original tone was played, and this was shown to affect how the subjects perceived the pitch! For example, when Farsi speakers saw a thick line, they were more likely to sing the tone back at a lower pitch than it was played at. And when it was a thin line, they sang it higher.

In the second phase of the experiment, Dutch speakers were trained to use the Farsi thick/thin distinction to describe pitch — they then underwent the same experiment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they showed the same pattern that the Farsi speakers did in the first part of the experiment, suggesting that language experience affects pitch perception. This held even when the participants underwent verbal interference, preventing them from covertly labeling the lines on the screen as “thick” or “thin.”

So, it is clear that language affects low-level perceptual processing of pitch (i.e. participants actually perceive the pitch to be different based on their language experience). But are these metaphors created by the languages we speak?

The final part of the experiment sought to find out by teaching Dutch participants to use the opposite of the Farsi system: they were trained to describe low pitches as “thin” and high pitches as “thick.” Interestingly, after this training phase, there was no effect of showing them a thin or thick line during the playing of the tone.

So what does this all mean? The last part of the experiment shows that it is not just language that affects these metaphors; there is something else going on.

The authors of the study posit that the metaphors used by different languages draw attention to metaphors that are already in place. In essence, people are born with a set of innate conceptual metaphors that they use to think about pitch, and different languages base their linguistic metaphors on those inborn conceptual ones. Put simply, we are born thinking about low-frequency pitches as “low” and “thick,” and the language we speak determines which of these metaphors that we continue to think with.

Pretty heavy stuff — if we are born with these two metaphors already in place, what other metaphors are we born with? Where do they come from? As far as I know, no one has any idea. But as soon as someone comes up with a theory, I’ll let you know!


Dolscheid S, Shayan S, Majid A, & Casasanto D (2013). The thickness of musical pitch: psychophysical evidence for linguistic relativity. Psychological science, 24 (5), 613-21 PMID: 23538914

Image via Alpha Spirit / Shutterstock.

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  • As a trained musician and also experienced in the clinical aspects of brain, the key to understanding music is in the Comparison processes of the brain. When we listen to notes, we don’t listen to them alone. We listen to series of intervals, instead. That is, we listen to groups of notes and their intervals.

    For instance, if we are to hear a set of 3-4 notes, that’s about all we need to figure out what the melody/composition is. And we can ID the melody with that few notes as well as play the rest of the tune in our heads. No note is an island. No note stands alone, to paraprase John Donne. Notes are meaningful with respect to the other notes. When we hear those 3-4 note intervals, no matter in what key, we can ID the melody, in most cases. & not only that but we can sing along with it, too.

    When we play chords, it’s much the same thing. It compares the harmonies of the notes together. It’s simply more of the same. The key to understanding music, is understanding what our R temporal lobe is doing when it hears music. And that’s mostly it. Copmparing intervals.

    When we hear a piece, no matter what key it’s in, if the intervals are the same as the starting piece, for say, the Scherzo in Beethoven’s 9th, we hear the Ta Ta Ta DUM, and the rest of it spills out. Or we hear the Hotel California sequence, we know it’s the Eagles. This simple comparison algorithm explains a lot about music.

    Because the scales are set up as clear system, mid C is 1/2 the frequence of the next higher C, and similar with the lower C. and we have 12 notes arranged in order. It’s a 12 tone scale. G is about 1/2 way in between, and then we have the 3rds an fifths in there, also. It’s mathematically precise, too. The relationship among the tones, if we start on mid-C is out usual mode. Other moedes and scales are possible.

    & of course this bears a striking example to mathematics, which is simply the relationships of numbers to each other, too. How the nuembers conmpare to each other. 4 compares to 8 by being twice 4. 12 comopares to 60 by being 5 times 12, and so arithmetic is built up too. PI simple what you find when you compare an ideal circle’s circumference to it’s line diameter.
    Trig are the relationships you get when you compare right angle trianglge’s 2 sides to each other.
    Which may explain the belief that musicians and mathmaticians have a lot in common.

    But if you want to understand melody/music, you have to compare the intervals, because THAT is what our brains are listening to. It creates minor and major keys, and the dominant 7th, and much else.

    It’s how you compare the tones which determines the tonality of it. It’s how you compare the beats, which determines the rhythms. It’s mostly the Comparison function doing the work. Everything else is built on that simple function.

    From the simple to complex, music is a complex system, just like language is a complex system. And the same comparison process which builds language, can build music, if you have the right rules which can make it classical, jazz, or pop rock, etc.


    • Thanks for the thoughtful and very detailed comment, Herb! I really like what you have to say about the comparison between music and language. I’m currently reading a book about the neuroscience of music, and there are a lot of parallels between music and language—the thing that I find most interesting is that they both have systems of rules, and that breaking those rules often serves the same purpose.

      When we break the rules of language, we’re drawing attention to the language that we’re using; sometimes we’re giving it emphasis, sometimes we’re being funny, sometimes we’re just being goofy. The same goes with music; there are patterns that are prevalent in different genres of music, and composers can violate those patterns to make us slightly uncomfortable for a moment and make the song more interesting and entertaining.

Daniel Albright, MA, PhD (c)

Daniel Albright, MA, is a PhD student at the University of Reading, studying the lateralization of linguistically mediated event perception. He received his masters in linguistics from the University of Colorado-Boulder. Get in touch with him at or on Twitter at @dann_albright.

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