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Musical properties, such as auditory pitch, are not expressed in the same way across cultures. In some languages, pitch is expressed in terms of spatial height (high vs. low), whereas others rely on thickness vocabulary (thick = low frequency vs. thin = high frequency). We investigated how children represent pitch in the face of this variable linguistic input by examining the developmental trajectory of linguistic and non-linguistic space-pitch associations in children who acquire Dutch (a height-pitch language) or Turkish (a thickness-pitch language). Five-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 9-year-olds, and 11-year-olds were tested for their understanding of pitch terminology and their associations of spatial dimensions with auditory pitch when no language was used. Across tasks, thickness-pitch associations were more robust than height-pitch associations. This was true for Turkish children, and also Dutch children not exposed to thickness-pitch vocabulary. Height-pitch associations, on the other hand, were not reliable-not even in Dutch-speaking children until age 11-the age when they demonstrated full comprehension of height-pitch terminology. Moreover, Turkish-speaking children reversed height-pitch associations. Taken together, these findings suggest thickness-pitch associations are acquired in similar ways in children from different cultures, but the acquisition of height-pitch associations is more susceptible to linguistic input. Overall, then, despite cross-cultural stability in some components, there is variation in how children come to represent musical pitch, one of the building blocks of music.

Original publication




Journal article


Dev Sci

Publication Date



cross-cultural, development, language, linguistic relativity, music terminology, pitch