Tone language and music both use pitch to convey categorical information. Previous research has shown shared processing of linguistic and musical tones in that pitch experience in one domain may affect the perception of the other. However, how such transfer facilitates tonal categorization is less clear. The present study investigates the categorical perception of linguistic and music tones by three groups of listeners differing in their tone language and musical training experiences (native Mandarin non-musicians, native English musicians, and native English non-musicians). Linguistic tonal continua were created from Mandarin level to rising tones, and from level to falling tones. Melodic music continua were created by varying the note D under the context of C and E (CDE to CEE, and CCE to CDE). The participants performed a discrimination task and an identification task for the Mandarin tones and the music melodies. The results show facilitative effects of musical experience on Mandarin tone. First, the English musicians’ tone discrimination outperformed the native Mandarin non-musicians, indicating musicians’ enhanced sensitivity to pitch variations. Moreover, the English musicians identified the Mandarin tones in a more categorical manner than English non-musicians, showing musicians’ greater ability in categorizing pitch information. On the other hand, experience with linguistic tone is also shown to affect melodic perception. Specifically, the Mandarin non-musicians’ experience in linguistic tone categorization appears to facilitate their perception in music, as their identification of melodic CDE-to-CEE exemplars reveals a more categorical pattern than the English non-musicians. However, the Mandarin non-musicians’ experience in tone categorization may have decreased their sensitivity to subtle pitch differences, as their discrimination of melodic pitch differences was the poorest among the three listener groups. Taken together, these results suggest bi-directional transfer between language and music in perception and categorization processes, pointing to an integration of domain-general and domain-specific pitch processing as a function of experiences.
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