If Chinese Mandarin is a tonal language, then how can people understand modern Chinese songs?


If Chinese Mandarin is a tonal language, then how can people understand modern Chinese songs?

In: Other

I think it just has to be inferred through context. Like a lot of stuff in Chinese actually. I’m pretty sure they also don’t have any tenses either.


I learned quickly when studying chinese that the best way to sound fluent was to drop the tonals and just go ham. All the instructors and exchange students were impressed how I got so good so fast. If you are with a friend, and they ask you “how is your horse” when talking about your family, you know in that case “ma” was meant to be “mother”.

The important thing to understand about tonal languages is that it’s not about absolute pitch but about relative pitch. Is the pitch rising, falling, staying level, going up and down, etc.

So, if a singer wants to sing a syllable with falling tone, they may start off singing it slightly sharp, then (quickly) drop down to the correct note, thus indicating falling tone.

Even in a song, the tones of the words remain the same most of the time. When the tones change to fit the flow of the music, there’s some misunderstanding for sure, sometimes can be resolved by the context sometimes not.

I had a Chinese friend say that the shape of the music is dictated by the sentence, and then defined later. So they start with the sentence, and that gets turned into notes.

Basically instead of drawing with a blank paper, a friend scribbled a few lines into it and you have to add to those lines to make something interesting. This may actually make composing easier, because you can focus on a few options instead of being overwhelmed with where to start.

Tone in Chinese languages is important for disambiguation, but not absolutely necessary. There is of course a non-tonal component to each word, and put enough of those together and you can figure out what the tones should have been. And don’t forget – even in English we often rely on typed-out lyrics to understand everything in a song!

Frow what I hear, though, in Cantonese often the melody is designed to work well with the tone pattern the lyrics would have when spoken. Mandarin on the other hand just ignores tone in music.

As someone who’s studied both linguistics and music theory, I can tell you as an absolute certainty the two have nothing to do with each other. Tonality is the ‘direction’ of a vowel as you pronounce it, it’s entirely possible to pronounce tonal vowels correctly while singing on key.