I recently became aware of the phenomenon of absolute pitch--the ability to identify a pitch without external reference. I am almost certain I have this ability--I get annoyed by out-of-tune pianos, and I can essentially remember long pieces of music and play them back on a piano months later (think 20 minutes long).

I'm curious if this ability has impacted my ability to learn languages, and particularly to mimic native accents.


Because I grew up in Guangzhou, China, my first language (only learned informally) is Cantonese. In elementary school I formally learned Mandarin (the first thing they teach explicitly is pronunciation) in Grade 1, and it is the only way I know how to type Chinese characters. The Chinese school system begins teaching children English in Grade 3, but it is very slow and limited.

When I immigrated to Canada I had to learn English much more quickly and intensely (that was Grade 8). What is interesting, is that (and I noticed this myself, as well as hearing comments from native English speakers) I do not have an accent. I remember a teacher saying "oh, I thought you were born here [in Canada]" when I told her that I immigrated to Canada only a few years ago.

Of course, this is only about spoken language. On handwriting, I had forgotten how to write some very basic Chinese characters because I use a computer to type these characters 99% of the time (I only need to know how to pronounce the character in Mandarin to type it).

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    Just a note that your first paragraph doesn't necessarily imply that you have absolute pitch. An out of tune piano typically sounds that way because the notes don't sound right together. If you can identify that a piano is out of tune from a single note by itself, though, then you might have absolute pitch. Similarly with playing back a piece of music, are you able to do so in the same key without fail? If you're transposing you're keeping the relative distances between the pitches, but not the absolute pitches themselves. Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 17:37
  • @Matt Sorry to be late, but yes, I have a very strong tendency to hate transposed music once I hear it in its original form. And since I know how many semitones (black keys) are most commonly used in that piece of music, transposing it would increase or decrease the number of black keys. Further, more complicated/faster pieces would be very difficult for me to transpose (e.g. Mozart Piano Sonata 16, K545 C Major) requires extreme speed of successive white keys. Commented Oct 3, 2016 at 3:54

1 Answer 1


Summarized from Absolute Pitch, Speech, and Tone Language: Some Experiments and a Proposed Framework (emphasis mine):

The verbal labeling of pitches necessarily involves speech and language, so in searching for a framework in which to place absolute pitch, we can consider further evidence that it is tied to linguistic processing.

In most right-handers, the planum temporale, which is critically involved in speech processing, is larger in the left than in the right hemisphere. Schlaug et al. observed that this leftward asymmetry was greater among musicians with absolute pitch than among those who did not possess this faculty. This finding indicates that absolute pitch is subserved, at least in part, by brain regions that underly speech processing.

Another body of evidence concerns an intriguing parallel between the critical periods involved in the acquisition of speech and language on the one hand, and the acquisition of absolute pitch on the other.

Studies of second language acquisition have confirmed this picture.

  • 1
    Nice source and summary! Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 20:16
  • @LukeSawczak Thanks!
    – fi12
    Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 21:34

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