When high pitches sound low: Children’s acquisition of space-pitch metaphors


Some languages describe musical pitch in terms of spatial height; others in terms of thickness. Differences in pitch metaphors also shape adults’ nonlinguistic space-pitch representations. At the same time, 4-month-old infants have both types of space-pitch mappings available. This tension between prelinguistic space-pitch associations and their subsequent linguistic mediation raises questions about the acquisition of space-pitch metaphors. To address this issue, 5-year-old Dutch children were tested on their linguistic knowledge of pitch metaphors, and nonlinguistic space-pitch associations. Our results suggest 5-year-olds understand height-pitch metaphors in a reversed fashion (high pitch = low). Children displayed good comprehension of a thickness-pitch metaphor, despite its absence in Dutch. In nonlinguistic tasks, however, children did not show consistent space-pitch associations. Overall, pitch representations do not seem to be influenced by linguistic metaphors in 5-year-olds, suggesting that effects of language on musical pitch arise rather late during development.

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