How are countries that have languages that depend on tone able to have a music industry?


This really may be an absolutely stupid question, but it’s been bugging me for a long time. Mandarin for instance is highly dependent on tone changes to say different words, but (pop)music takes away that ability because it takes away from the tune and melody. How does anybody make music that makes sense? Or can my western ears not pick up the small tonal changes they sing?

In: Other

It varies based on the specific language or culture, but since you brought up Mandarin I’ll just speak to that.

In Mandarin, tonality is ignored in music. Native speakers can still understand it just fine based on the pronunciation and context, and it very rarely causes any kind of confusion. But Mandarin is pretty simple.

Hmong, for example, has up to 8 tones, and when people write lyrics for the Hmong language they actually do still include tonality. That means the lyrics are usually written out before the melody is worked out, so you can compliment the melody to the tone.

When you translate a song from a non-tonal language into a tonal-language, and you can’t change the melody, you have to **severely** limit your vocabulary. The melody dictates the final syllable of every word, so you really have to do a lot of work to match the meaning and the melody.

Tonal languages do not rely on absolute pitch, but relative pitch.

So you can still slide around and “sing” tones. Of course a lot follows from context, but the tones are still sort of preserved.

But yes this absolutely partially forces the melody of the song.

I can only really speak for Thai though. I can give you an example:

Listen to the very first line of this song (timestamp = 14 s)

Might be hard to pick out, but he’s singing, with word tones beneath:

jaak khon, khon tee koey mee jai gan yoo
low mid, mid fall mid mid mid mid low

Now listen to the melody. It goes:

E ↑ C♯ C♯ ↑ D ↓ C♯ ↓ B B B ↓ A

Maybe that doesn’t make sense, but whatever, you can still hear the melody start low, then go up, so the first word becomes low tonally relative to the mid word. Then it stays on mid until “tee” which is falling, and should start higher in pitch, so the melody does that too. Then we go back down to mid, linger there until we go down again. Here is a “problem” because the tone doesn’t change, but it’s actually ok because the words that follow are also mid so it’s still the same relative to *those* words, and even so context here makes it pretty clear what he’s singing about. Then finally we end on a low note, just as we’d like to. So you see the melody is not a coincidence.

Sometimes you have no choice and you want the melody to be exactly one way.. it can also work, because at least in Thai, all the tones have a pitch pattern which the follow: so as you see, as long as you follow the curve well, what the absolute pitch is doesn’t really matter, because all tones are unique anyway. Maybe it’s my imagination or bias, but I think it sounds like the singer is doing these tonal slides in the example above. With all these tools, implementing tones into singing is easy!

Cantonese has 6 main tones (9 overall). Songs indeed are “restricted” on what words can go where so that it doesn’t sound weird. It’s kind of part of the craft. That being said, you can still cram words in that sound off and people won’t mind too much, if it’s not too often and doesn’t sound too far off.


1) Melody doesn’t necessarily take away from the tone, so singing can still have proper tone and be easily understood.

2) Proper tone isn’t necessary for understanding the language. There are many regional accents in Cantonese/Mandarin just like in English (eg. London vs. Jersey Shore accents) which sounds totally different from each other and yet is still the same language. Fluent speakers can potentially understand multiple regional accents, depending on whether they have past exposure to them.

—–Long Version—–

Unsure if I’m understanding the question correctly but here’s my experience with Mandarin, Cantonese, and my hometown dialect (unsure what the dialect is called).

You don’t lose the tone when putting melody on it. You can still sing in a tune/melody while maintaining the tone of the words, understanding it is not an issue at all.

Certain music, such as rap, does cause some changes to the tone of the words. I’ve heard rap songs where the singer “mispronounce” words on purpose such as using a “wrong” tone in order to rhyme or make the rhythm sound better. In this case, the listener usually can understand the intended meaning based on context.

However I have also heard songs that changed the tones so much in order to make it sound a certain way, that I have trouble understanding the meaning. This is most common in rap and hiphop style music, which is similar to English rap and hiphop also, there’s slangs and accents used to make the words sound certain ways instead of pronouncing it normally. However this mispronounciation is planned and intended for a certain style or sound, and is not because the singer is unable to use proper tone. Its just cause the singer or songwriter decided that the song sounds better with a mispronounced tone, or it could be a slang.

I’m sure there’s other nuances that I’m not familiar with. Just in my experience listening to songs, the pronunciation can be correct while still following the melody, so I do not think tune and melody “takes away” from the tone of the language at all. Perhaps its harder for non-native speakers to understand the words in a song because it affects the way tone is perceived by the non-native speaker when melody is superimposed, but I’ve always felt the tone is preserved in the songs. However, I also understand accented Mandarin so maybe I’m not the best judge of proper tone. There’s so many dialects in Chinese and everyone’s Mandarin is “improper” cause of their dialect causing an accent on their Mandarin but usually people still all understand each other, so maybe native speakers are just really good at understanding the language regardless of tone? To be honest, when I speak to other Mandarin speakers, everyone’s pronunciation with tone is actually quite incorrect, and I find that the tone is more correct in songs than in everyday speech. Usually the singers don’t have super strong accents in their songs.

Hope this answers the question.

ETA: I revisited some songs that completely butcher the tone. My final verdict is that, it is not true that tone is necessary to understand the language. I can still understand most of the language in the absence of tone. So I think its just experience with the language. It is more difficult to understand for non-native speakers because you don’t have the same familiarity and also experience of talking and understanding people with strong accents who don’t use the correct tone anyway. It’s like British English vs Jersey Shore English, both are English but also totally different in pronunciation. Some people understand both and some people understand neither, even when fluent in English. It is the same for Cantonese or Mandarin, I can understand some people with strong regional accents from certain areas but not from other areas.

In the case of mandarin, when learning the new words the tones are often exaggerated so the learner gets an idea which is the correct tone inflection to use. However in actual use the tones aren’t that heavy. In fact there are plenty of native speakers with accents that dont even use the correct tone inflections. But we can sort of guess which word they used based on the context of the other words in the sentence or phrase. As long as the word sort of sounds right, native speakers can figure out what you’re saying.