Possible influence of language on music and perfomers: Surveys of Chinese-speaking pianists, English-speaking pianists and piano professors
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This study aimed to contribute to the understanding of the relationship between language and music, a rapidly growing area of inquiry. By way of surveys, I sought to (1) directly gauge the opinions of students whose primary languages are non-Western ones and who are actively engaged in the process of learning appropriate Western musical stylistic expression, and (2) compare these opinions with those of their peers and professors. It was hoped that the initial exploration of opinions and experiences of a limited group of learners with similar backgrounds would serve as an important starting point for further research. The research stemmed from my personal experiences as a foreign-born, Chinese-speaking piano student who once struggled in executing musical phrases in a manner that is acceptable and appropriate according to Western classical standards. The primary demographic in the study was Chinese-speaking students born in Asia, with English-speaking piano students and piano professors as comparison groups. Three surveys were designed to determine whether (1) foreign-born students whose first language is a tonally inflected one like Chinese struggle in learning Western classical repertoire, (2) these challenges are influenced by language differences, (3) these challenges differ from the experiences of native English-speaking pianists, (4) piano professors raised in the West are aware of such challenges in their teaching of native Chinese speakers, and (5) respondents believe the hypothesized relationship between language and music is a fruitful one with pedagogical implications. Responses from 82 professors, 36 Chinese-speaking pianists, and 36 English-speaking students indicate that the majority of participants across the three groups believe that language and music share similar properties and that knowledge of a Western language can benefit one’s performance of Western classical repertoire. However, whereas most professor-respondents believe that language differences might cause obstacles for Chinese-speaking students learning to appropriately phrase Western repertoire, Chinese-speaking students were less likely to admit to experiencing difficulties than their English-speaking counterparts. The results suggest that Chinese-speaking piano students may perceive and process Western music differently than their English-speaking professors and peers. Although further research is needed before generalizing the pedagogical implications of these data, the findings provide evidence that one’s spoken language may play more of an influential role than earlier thought in the learning and performance of music.