Music and language share similar sound features and cognitive processes, which may lead to bidirectional transfer effects of training in one domain on the processing in the other domain. We investigated the impact of native language on musical working memory by comparing nontonal language (Finnish) speakers and tonal language (Chinese) speakers. For both language backgrounds, musicians and nonmusicians were recruited. In an experimenter-monitored online paradigm, participants performed a forward-memory task measuring the maintenance of musical sequences, and a backward-memory task measuring the manipulation of musical sequences. We found that maintenance of music sequences was facilitated in Chinese participants compared with Finnish participants, with musicians outperforming nonmusicians. However, performance in the backward-memory task did not differ between Chinese and Finnish participants, independently of music expertise. The presence or absence of tonal structure in the musical sequences did not affect the advantage of Chinese over Finnish participants in either maintenance or manipulation of the musical sequences. Overall, these findings suggest that Mandarin Chinese speakers have facilitated maintenance of musical sounds, compared with Finnish speakers, regardless of musical expertise and the presence of tonal structure. Our study furthers the understanding of language-to-music transfer and provides insights into cross-cultural differences in music cognition.

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