The influence of native language on brass playing: Articulatory evidence for the transfer of skilled behavior across different vocal tract activities


The influence of native language on brass playing: Articulatory evidence for the transfer of skilled behavior across different vocal tract activities

While speech motor control has traditionally been viewed as domain-specific or organized in a vertical manner [1-3], recent research has postulated cross-system interactions [e.g., 4, 5] that provide evidence for a modular organization [6, 7] of speech motor control. In this presentation, I will extend claims that phylogenetically-encoded structures such as swallowing can influence speech learning, arguing that the influence of native language on brass instrument performance provides evidence for the transfer of vocal tract behavior from one form of skilled behavior (speech production) to another (brass playing). During my PhD research at the University of Canterbury, I used ultrasound imaging of the tongue to record midsagittal tongue contours of 10 Tongan and 10 New Zealand English (NZE)-speaking trombone players during speech production in their native language and while producing sustained notes on the trombone. Estimation of the ultrasound transducer location from an ultrasound image (cf. [8]) combined with the average curves of players’ high front vowel articulations allowed me to normalize my data across individual vocal tract shapes and vocal tract activities. The comparison of tongue positions assumed during speech production and trombone playing in the form of SSANOVA average curves calculated in polar coordinates [8] suggests that motor memory of vowel tongue positions interacts with other constraints related to airflow, acoustical demands involving the interaction of vocal tract and instrument bore resonances [cf. 9], as well as considerations of motor efficiency, to produce significant language group differences at the back and front of the tongue. These differences pattern independently, supporting accounts of the functional independence of various sections of the tongue [10], and a modular organization of speech motor control, as recently posited by Gick and colleagues [11, 12]. Furthermore, midsagittal tongue shapes employed during brass playing seem to result from local rather than global optimization processes [cf. 13, 14]. When first starting to play a brass instrument, a beginning player’s vocal tract musculature is faced with the challenge of coming up with a way of initiating, and channeling, the required airflow into the instrument. Developing a completely new sensorimotor program through a process of trial and error would be costly so that applying a vowel tongue position from one’s native language, with subsequent local optimization, might represent the most cost-effective strategy in such a situation.


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  •  Matthias Heyne
    Matthias Heyne, University of Canterbury, New Zealand