How do you sing in Chinese and other tonal languages?
September 4, 2004 10:31 PM   Subscribe

How do you sing in Chinese and other tonal languages? Does the music follow the notes as usual but deviate a little bit to express tones (which could explain the sort of warbly psychedelic sound of the Chinese singing I've heard), or does the music itself dictate what tones are used - in which case I'd guess lyrics are mostly limited to flat tones since singing is mostly level notes.
posted by abcde to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Chinese music actually has a different system of pitches and scales than western music. See here.
posted by falconred at 10:48 PM on September 4, 2004

Oh, I know. Still, I think the same question would apply for pentatonic scales.
posted by abcde at 11:33 PM on September 4, 2004

"Pentatonic Scales"? A little knowledge is dangerous, as they say...

A "pentatonic scale" is a subset of five notes from a Western Music. The most common pentatonic - the Minor Pentatonic (ie: the black notes on a piano) is created by taking the first, flattened-third, fourth, fifth and flattened-seventh from a major scale. Less common, the Major Pentatonic, takes the first, second, third, fifth and sixth notes.

This though, has nothing to do with Chinese (or any Oriental music), which, along with having a different point of reference for the frequency of each note, uses microtones - notes with a smaller interval than our smallest - the half-tone.

And after all that - I don't really understand the question. Any singing involves following notes (the melody, as defined by the composer) and adding expression of ones own. Most singers will ornament (add notes), or add vibrato (slightly oscillate the pitch). There is a stylistic sound in Chinese music which incorporates a large amount of vibrato, but it's still up to the performer just how much to effect depending on the piece and situation.
posted by benzo8 at 3:45 AM on September 5, 2004

To clarify the question on behalf of abcde, because I'm interested too, I think the point is that the meanings of spoken Chinese languages are heavily reliant on the tones in which each syllable are spoken - or in fact microtones (Chinese-language speakers are more likely to posess perfect pitch). So 'bang' with a rising tone is different to 'bang' with a falling tone is different to 'bang' with a rising then falling tone.

So how can this meaning be kept in a song, when a tune is to be followed? Especially western-style music sung in, for example, Mandarin.
posted by cogat at 7:10 AM on September 5, 2004

I believe abcde's question related to the issue of music sung in a tonal language. According to this source: "These languages use pitch to signal a difference in meaning between words (Avery 77). These pitch variations are an important part of the language, just as stress and proper word order are in any language. In these languages, word meanings or grammatical categories such as tense are dependent on pitch level.(Crystal 353)."

Seemingly, then, the notes of the melody could change the meaning of the lyrics. If that is indeed the case, it would put severe limitations (as well as opening up some possibilities) for composers/songwriters.

On preview - cogat beat me to it.

I'm interested in the answer too. Paging languagehat ....
posted by tdismukes at 7:15 AM on September 5, 2004

I dont understand the question either...
posted by the cuban at 7:24 AM on September 5, 2004

I do now understand the question - hadn't considered (or really, been aware of) the tonality of Chinese carrying meaning, and thus the requirement when writing and performing vocal music in Chinese to make sure you don't alter the meaning with the melody (so to speak). And I don't know the answer... ;-)
posted by benzo8 at 8:00 AM on September 5, 2004

My understanding -- and it's very limited, although I did live in Taiwan and get exposed to a lot of Chinese music -- is that tonal patterns are taken into account in fitting lyrics to music, so that a prominent word with a falling tone will not be sung to a rising tune, or vice versa. Note that in actual spoken Chinese, the tone of most words is not very noticeable -- it's just on the stressed/important words that you really hear a clear rise/fall/pitch, the rest pretty much falling into the overall sentence pitch pattern. So it's not like fitting an immense number of jigsaw pieces together, it's more like (say) making sure the stressed note in a line of music doesn't come on an unstressed word like "of" in English. But, as I say, I Am Not a Chinese Lyricist/Composer. Hope this makes some sense.
posted by languagehat at 8:44 AM on September 5, 2004 [3 favorites]

Thanks, that pretty much explains it. languagehat: In Western vocal music, at least, individual notes tend to be held rather than slid between, so singing Western-style would result in most words being level tones, right?

benzo8: Pardon me for liberally using "pentatonic;" off the top of my head I can think of at least one literary reference that may have lead me astray; early in Neal Stephenson's Cryptnomicon he referred to the "pentatonic cacaphony" or something like that of Shanghai tradesman crowding the streets carrying boxes of currency and singing to keep in step, all trying to be louder than one another. I realized at the time when I posted that by saying pentatonic I wasn't summarizing all of the subtleties of Chinese music, I really should have said something like "alternate scales or not."
posted by abcde at 9:34 AM on September 5, 2004

Tonality changing with melody isn't actually that much a problem, at least as far as I've encountered in Mandarin. It's already a very context-dependent language (no tenses, singular/plural terms, etc.), so there's much more going on to convey meaning than just tone changes. With music (Western or otherwise), the spoken tones also seem to become subtones of the melody - there's enough inflection left that neither set of information (musical/verbal) gets lost.

IANALinguist, just a native speaker and Chinese School dropout.
posted by casarkos at 9:49 AM on September 5, 2004

abcde: Heh - wasn't a flame! Just, well, I'm a composer by trade, so I likes to see these things done right! ;-)
posted by benzo8 at 11:41 AM on September 5, 2004

Just a note: pentatonic also could actually be used for any 5-note scale, although it most commonly means the scales refered to above. And Chinese music did have a subset which focused on pentatonic scales, though they also had a "heptatonic" (7 tone scale) and a 12 tone scale. A fairly thorough examination can be found here.

FWIW, I've asked mandarin speaking friends this same question about tones interacting with music, and a number of them have said that if it works with the music, it gets left in, and if it doesn't, it gets dropped and people understand anyway because of context. Or what casarkos said.
posted by weston at 11:43 AM on September 5, 2004

Yeah - hence saying "a pentatonic scale is a subset of five notes" and then going on to talk about common pentatonic scales... ;-)
posted by benzo8 at 12:03 PM on September 5, 2004

Sheesh. I'm not noticing everything today. My link is also the same as falconred's top of the thread link.
posted by weston at 12:12 PM on September 5, 2004

i thought that absolute pitch was important in some languages (i read that speakers of such languages generally have "perfect pitch" - the article used this as evidence that it is a learnt skill, rather than an innate ability). is that not the case? if it is the case, then what happens in those languages?
posted by andrew cooke at 1:46 PM on September 5, 2004

Andrew - I mentioned it in my comment earlier. My understanding is that although relative pitch is important in e.g. Mandarin, perfect pitch isn't, but the ability arises naturally in individuals as a consequence of using the same pitches every day.

If perfect pitch was important, everyone would be speaking at the same pitch! Whilst this would undoubtedly sound cool in movies, it would mean that the language's musical repertoire would be very limited. Luckily it's not the case.
posted by cogat at 7:06 PM on September 5, 2004

so there aren't languages where absolute pitch is significant? pity. (it needn't be as odd as you think - octave differences might be acceptable, for example (i don't know how common the recognition of an octave interval is in other cultures (although the first link says it is basic to han music theory), but it has a physical basis that might lead to a physiological and so universal effect)). i was curious whether regional dialects arose from tonal shifts...
posted by andrew cooke at 8:25 PM on September 5, 2004

I can speak Mandarin fluently and can sing many Chinese pop songs karaoke-style. A couple of things come to mind.

1) There's absolutely no need to talk about non-pentatonic scales or any other non-Western music theory. All of the pop music out here (and that's all that people under the age of 60 here listen to) is done on the same sort of scales that Western pop music use. Traditional Chinese/Peking opera is a completely different subject that I know nothing about.

2.) It's really not that hard to fit the tones within a song. First tone (high) and fourth tone (falling) fit in quite naturally. When sung quickly, the second (rising) and third (falling then rising) tone often are sacrificed, but I guess they're there when the singing is a bit slower. The dirty secret of Mandarin is that you can often pick things out of context without the tones. It's really second nature and not something that even intermediate students worry about.
posted by alidarbac at 4:51 AM on September 6, 2004 [2 favorites]

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