Lithuanians, Japanese and Koreans sing best in tune

Repeating the pitch of a random piano tone with one’s voice is not easy. Quite some training is needed before a person can sing along with a melody while staying in tune. Now it appears that the ability to sing a given note correctly varies significantly between countries. People from Lithuania, Japan and Korea are the best ‘in tune’ singers, people from Spain and Mexico the worst.

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Lithuania, a country with a population of 3 milion people, and one of the oldest languages. The Lithuanian language is often said to be the most conservative living Indo-European language, retaining many features of Proto-Indo-European now lost in other Indo-European languages.

These findings result from analyses of more than 770 thousand user scores from the app Victor Baumwolle’s Vocal Intonation Trainer Lite. This app can be downloaded for free in Google’s Play Store. It plays musical assignments of one or more notes, which the user is required to repeat with his or her voice, with the objective to practice singing in tune. The data were collected anonymously between januari 2014 and june 2015 from 75.800 users. Together with user scores the country code was stored, and optionally voice type, if the user had entered his or her kind of voice, such as soprano or bass. The paid version of the app did not collect any data.

In the case of a perfect match of frequencies, a maximum score of 100 points could be achieved for each assignment. The mean score of all users was 70.1 points. On avarage users sang a little over one semitone too high or too low, in comparisson with the assignment tones.

Lithuanian users achieved the best mean score of 81.5 points. Japanese users came second with a mean score of 77.7. Koreans did almost as good (77.0 points on avarage).

A possible explanation for the high achievements of these countries is the fact that Lithuanian, Japanese and Korean are languages that incorporate ‘pitch accents’. Certain syllables of words may be pronounced with a different pitch, which causes a word to have a different meaning. “The sentence must be (mildly) sung like a song with tones” (http://www.komeiharada.com/japanese/Japanese.html). This typical aspect of these languages results in a heightened sensitivity for different pitches, and better control of the vocal chords to steer the voice to a targeted pitch.

Spanish and Mexican users achieved mean scores of respectively 64.6 and 62.3 points, which places them at the bottom end of the list of countries. This strenghtens the hypothesis that language has a strong influence on pitch awareness, as in Spanish the use of pitch differences is quite limited.

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