An International Examination of the Tritone Paradox

Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Sonja Trent-Brown, Hope College

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Languages are either tonal, conveying word meaning by vocal inflection and pitch contours, or they are intonation-based, merely conveying a speaker’s emotions and overall implications. Studies such as the one conducted by Pfordresher and Brown have shown that speakers of a tonal language (such as Mandarin) have an increased perception of musical pitch in some forms. Further examination of the relationship between intonation-based languages and musical perception is in order. Specifically, the tritone paradox first established by Dr. Diana Deutsch involves a pitch interval that is heard differently by listeners depending on their native region and lends itself well to such an investigation.

This study seeks to examine the responses of Mandarin and Cantonese speakers as well as English speakers’ to the tritone paradox for perceptual significance. The paradox involves two notes played sequentially, with the participant recording whether the second pitch was higher of lower than the former. Participants will be assigned a participant number and will fill out a language background questionnaire and a musical background questionnaire. They will then be administered the tritone paradox test, which involves a CD being played and a multiple choice response sheet. Analysis of native language and participants’ regions of origin will seek to show the extent to which both variables influence pitch perception. It is expected that language will have a greater impact on perception, although a participant pool from various areas within each country will be necessary to separate the two variables.

It is anticipated that trends in responses of the two ethnic groups will mirror the results already found in previous studies, that one group will provide significantly different responses than the other. Patterns of responding groups are discussed. It is also predicted that greater musical experience will correlate with significant trends in perception.

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