General Question

occ's avatar

If mandarin is a tonal language, how can people parse meaning when the words are set to music?

Asked by occ (4003 points ) October 17th, 2007

I was listening to some chinese music and wondering if mandarin speakers get confused between the different word meanings when those words are being sung. I’ve never studied Mandarin. Does anyone know?

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7 Answers

bpeoples's avatar

Two guesses (having learned a little mandarin, but not being a scholar of the language):

1. Context: I’d imagine it’s similar to when listening to punk rock or heavy metal, it takes a surprisingly little bit of word to be able to figure out what words mean by context.

2. Tones are a lot more subtle when spoken by a fluent speaker than when explained to or by a westerner. It’s probably (likely) possible that they can be worked into the sung lyrics without affecting the sound too much. Like rolling your r’s or enunciating your t’s while singing…

TruMobius's avatar

I am not sure (though some research may be warranted here)

Mandarin as far as I know is a socially ridge language…used for purposes of state and business. It is quite possible that the language never is used for song. If it where I assume the music must be made to suite the language with socially appropriate instruments.

Other such languages/Dialects of chinese (Cantonese, etc?) would not have this socially defined role so would be allowed to be used in such “frivolous” things as rock music.

JCS's avatar

okay, so this is about Cantonese and not Mandarin but perhaps it is applicable? The title of this paper is “How can the lyrics of a song in a tone language be understood? ”

In a tone language, pitch variations are used to contrast word meaning. For example, the Cantonese syllable /si/ means ‘teacher’ when spoken in a high pitch and ‘yes’ when spoken in a low pitch. How is fundamental frequency (F0) used to signal lexical tones that occur in songs? In an examination of Cantonese songs, it was found that songwriters abandon the ratio scale of F0 differences that is applied to lexical tones in carefully read speech and instead use an ordinal scale. For example, a high tone that is normally 12% higher than a mid tone in speech can be realized as any higher F0 (but never a lower F0) in songs. A perceptual experiment showed that native Cantonese-speaking listeners similarly apply an ordinal F0 scale to arrive at the lexical meaning of the lyric. This ratio-to-ordinal mapping in Cantonese songs ensures the musicality of the melody while preserving adequate identifiability of lexical tones in the lyric.

available at

bpeoples's avatar


When I was there in 1997 (as a student touristing through) As far south as Guilin folks were speaking pretty much straight Mandarin, as well as all throughout Beijing.

Spoken languages do vary by area, but Mandarin is spoken through a big chunk of the middle of the country… I would imagine they’re singing in it too. (I could be totally wrong)

kechuansheng's avatar

In my opinion (I’m a native English speaker who has lived in China for 5 years and studied Mandarin for 8) its a combination of context and small tonal variations that are sort of “pronounced” over the pitch shifts. There is a TON of popular music in Mandarin and its all very understandable when one hears it on the radio.

Elle's avatar

I know this is a terribly old question, but what’s interesting to note is that on CCTV (the government owned TV-stations) when they have anyone singing in Mandarin, the characters will be displayed as closed-captioning fairly regularly.

Granted, they also display closed-captioning whenever someone with a heavily-accented Mandarin is being interviewed.


The arrangement of the words in the lyrics, and their relationship with other words in the line, when sung, allow the listener to make sense of the meaning. Just like a string of homonyms in an English sentence like “When I win the game, the wind will blow.” When we hear this sentence, we can differentiate “when” from “win” and “wind”.

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