33. Why Chinese and Vietnamese Children Learn Music So Easily
“At the neurological level, there is strong evidence that the brain structures underlying the processing of lexical tone overlap with those underlying the processing of phonemes in speech.”
Ogorodnov’s theory states that the throat perceives sounds just as hearing does. The voice doesn’t only reproduce sound, but it also perceives it. This is supported by the experiences of Russian psychologists working under the leadership of A.N. Leontyev. They have revealed that listening to music incites bioelectric activity in the throat, even if the vocal chords aren’t working at the time.
Most of the world’s languages are “timbre-articulate;” they are based on the recognition of vowels and consonants, and not on the distinction of the voice’s pitch. However, there are also several tonal languages, predominant in East Asia. For example, most Chinese dialects, and Vietnamese, among many others use words that take on different meanings depending on the tone in which they’re spoken. A 2004 study released by the University of California explains how this works:
“Lexical tones are defined both by their pitch heights (“registers”) and also by their pitch contours. In Mandarin, for example, the word “ma” means “mother” when spoken in the first tone, “hemp” in the second tone, “horse” in the third tone, and a reproach in the fourth tone.1 So when a speaker of Mandarin hears “ma” in the first tone, and attributes to it the meaning “mother,” he or she is associating a particular pitch (or combination of pitches) with a verbal label.”
As you can see, the use of pitch is established as a part of speech in tonal languages.
Perfect pitch is an extremely rare phenomenon in our culture, and has an estimated prevalence of less than 1 in 10,000 of the general [timbre-articulate] population. A possible cause of the rarity of absolute pitch in timbre-articulate populations is that they tend to perceive music just as they do their speech; they have a much harder time distinguishing sounds by pitch. They can’t intonate and hum with the voice or repeat melodies as easily as they can repeat phrases. In the meantime, the population of tonal language-speaking countries is distinguished by its precise hearing – after all, recognition of pitch is necessary for them to understand words! And the advantage recognition of pitch gives a music student is exhibited again and again in my classes. Out of all of the children that I teach, Vietnamese and Chinese students are the most successful at music at an early age. Their parents preserve the tonal language, pass it on to them, and their hearing is trained to distinguish the pitch of different sounds from birth.
A.N. Leontyev promoted such a hypothesis: the development of speech-related hearing surpasses the development of musical hearing. The melody in a song is identified indirectly through speech. Having learned the words, a person can even sing along to a song, though no one demands a pristine performance. This way, speech-related hearing compensates for the shortcomings of music hearing and therefore is established as primary in hearing perception.
Leontyev conducted a curious experiment: he gathered the most tone-deaf people and quickly developed their sense of exact pitches. In order to do this, he used a simple vocal exercise; the subject was asked to match a pre-recorded note with his voice. “The results were amazing, and for me, unexpected. We worked with each test subject 3 times a week, and this involved probably half an hour of non-stop work. And imagine, after an extremely short amount of time, 10-15 days, we achieved a swift increase in sense [of pitch].”
An “increase in sense of pitch” is a development of musical hearing. Therefore, the voice isn’t only an organ for the perception of musical sounds, but also the most important instrument for the development of hearing! Developing our voices with the help of an instrument, we can infinitely perfect our recognition of sounds to a perfect pitch, and their tonal interrelatedness with each other. Knowledge of the music alphabet and the different alphabet cycles as well as singing by notes in Solfeggio are the best means of developing one’s music ear.
But can’t we also sing songs with their lyrics? Of course, and sometimes it’s even necessary! But not while we are trying to learn music. Singing the lyrics of songs doesn’t develop one’s musical literacy. It doesn’t fasten the names of the notes to their sounds, and doesn’t connect the sounds to their visual representations. Only singing in Solfeggio fulfils all of these assignments, and without it music education is ineffective, that it barely makes any sense at all.
 2004, “Absolute Pitch, Speech, and Tone Language: Some Experiments and a Proposed Framework”; Deutsch, Henthorn, and Dolson
 2004, Deutsch, Henthorn, and Dolson
 2004, Deutsch, Henthorn, and Dolson