A same–different task was used to test the hypothesis that musical expertise improves the discrimination of tonal and segmental (consonant, vowel) variations in a tone language, Mandarin Chinese. Two four-word sequences (prime and target) were presented to French musicians and nonmusicians unfamiliar with Mandarin, and event-related brain potentials were recorded. Musicians detected both tonal and segmental variations more accurately than nonmusicians. Moreover, tonal variations were associated with higher error rate than segmental variations and elicited an increased N2/N3 component that developed 100 msec earlier in musicians than in nonmusicians. Finally, musicians also showed enhanced P3b components to both tonal and segmental variations. These results clearly show that musical expertise influenced the perceptual processing as well as the categorization of linguistic contrasts in a foreign language. They show positive music-to-language transfer effects and open new perspectives for the learning of tone languages.

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