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.

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.
See All Posts By The Author