Note: This post was written by Steven Jackson and Lawrence T. White.
Languages use spatial terms to talk about musical pitch, but they don’t always use the same spatial terms. English and Dutch, for example, use the vertical (height) dimension to talk about pitch. A melody is comprised of higher and lower notes. (Minnie Riperton, by the way, could really hit the high notes.) Musicians and vocalists often warm up by playing ascending and descending scales. In standard music notation, high-frequency tones are inked higher on the staff paper. When Quincy Jones told Michael Jackson to “take it up an octave,” everyone knew what he meant. It’s practically impossible to talk about pitch in English (or Dutch) without using the metaphor of height.
Some languages—like Farsi, Turkish, and Zapotec (an indigenous language spoken in Mexico)—talk about pitch as a horizontal dimension. In these languages, high-frequency pitches are thin and low-frequency pitches are thick. (Incidentally, in American slang one can talk about a fat bass line. But a fat tenor trumpet? No way.)
This interesting linguistic phenomenon has prompted psycholinguists to wonder about its origin. Are these pitch-space associations a product of the language we learn as a child? Or are they innate, an inherent part of the standard equipment, so to speak?
Sarah Dolscheid at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands wanted to find out, so she and her team ran an experiment. They tested Dutch infants in a “focus of attention” task. The babies were 4 months old and hadn’t learned any language yet. To test the height-pitch association, 20 babies watched a video of an orange ball moving up and down on the screen. The movement of the ball was accompanied by the sound of a sliding whistle. In what they called the congruent condition, the ball rose when the pitch rose and fell when the pitch fell. In the incongruent condition, the ball and whistle were at odds with each other; when the pitch went up, the ball fell, and vice-versa.
A different set of 20 babies completed a similar test called the thickness-pitch task. Instead of an animated ball moving up and down, the babies watched an orange cylinder that expanded (got fatter) or contracted (got thinner) as the sliding whistle varied its pitch. As in the first test, the researchers used a congruent condition and an incongruent condition.
The babies watched and listened. The researchers watched the babies. They recorded exactly how long each baby focused its attention on the animation, to see if the baby was more absorbed when the sound and the visuals matched up according to a pitch-space metaphor.
As it turned out, the babies paid more attention when the sounds matched the visuals according to a spatial metaphor. They watched longer when the ball and pitch rose and fell together (or the cylinder and pitch thickened and thinned together). It seems that even before we acquire language, we’re predisposed to understand pitch in spatial terms.
But hold on, says Professor Dolscheid. “In our paper we do not make the claim that the metaphorical associations between space and pitch are innate,” she wrote in a recent e-mail. “We can only conclude that metaphors in language are not the origin of space-pitch associations.”
It’s possible we learn to associate pitch and space through experience with the environment and our own bodies, says Dolscheid. Higher-pitched sounds tend to come from places that are higher up, off the ground. And our larynx rises when we produce higher pitches. As for the thickness-pitch association, there’s the observable fact that bigger bodies and larger instruments tend to produce lower, “fatter” tones.
“It could be, of course, that some of these mappings are innate,” says Dolscheid, but 4-month-old babies have already learned a lot from experience, so it’s hard to know for sure.
Dolscheid and her colleagues couldn’t completely disentangle nature and nurture in their experiments, but this much is clear: From a very young age, we associate pitch and space. The cross-modal connection is present before we learn to speak. Then language comes along and prescribes the spatial terms we use to express that association, either vertically or horizontally.
How exactly we acquire these associations, and how language influences and shapes them, are questions Dolscheid hopes to explore in future research.
Dolscheid, S., Hunnius, S., Casasanto, D., & Majid, A. (2014). Prelinguistic infants are sensitive to space-pitch associations found across cultures. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1256-1261.
 In music, pitch refers to a perceptual property of musical tones, such that some tones are perceived as higher than others. A tone’s pitch is determined largely by its frequency (a physical property), but pitch itself is a psychological feature of music.