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I already have a hard time distinguishing tones in normal speech. This gets significantly worse when I listen to Chinese songs, since the melody masks tones even further.

Yes, I understand that context will help distinguish words from one another. But almost always I have to look up the lyrics to know exactly what they are singing about.

Can native Chinese speakers tell tones apart in songs? How can I improve my tone-listening skills (in music)?

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It's totally ok if you couldn't tell. Even many native speakers can't. – Kabie Dec 14 '11 at 21:07… You might find this entertaining haha! – gonnastop Mar 20 '12 at 9:08
Not really. For example: 灯,等灯等灯sounds really really like the advertisement song of Intel Pentium processors. – sun qingyao Jul 9 at 17:35
up vote 18 down vote accepted

Not sure if listening skill to tones in Chinese songs has its own implication, I get the impression that songs are generally harder than daily conversations for a non-native language.

To answer the first part of your question: native speaker can not tell the lyrics all the time. One particularly interesting case is the songs by Jay Chou, who is one of the most famous Chinese singers since 2000. As a native speaker, I can only get about 10%-30% of the lyrics by only listening to his rap songs.

However, tones seem not to be problem, rather, it is the speed that makes the difficulty for native speakers. Personally, I do not really find tones as the problem. Perhaps only when listen to special dialects, nonstandard tones may be problematic.

To improve, the suggestion could be similar as what you thought. Start with easier ones and try to understand in the context. This process should be very similar to or same as general listening skill.

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+1 for using Jay Chou as an example. – StarCub Dec 14 '11 at 21:03


In songs, most tones disappear. The syllables are sung along the melody of music. We only tell the tone because we can catch what the whole word or sentence is.

In songs, usually the melody should be written to convey the tones of syllables (or syllables chosen to match the melody). Mismatch of melody and lyrics can result in misunderstandings. However, in pop music, not much attention has been paid to this problem.

An interesting paper (that this blog post pointed me to) claims that in Cantonese pop songs, the melody more closely follows the tones, while in Mandarin songs, the tones just get obliterated.

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+1 for the link to the paper! – hippietrail Mar 25 '14 at 12:20
My full support :- ".... The impressionistic observation that modern Cantonese songs tend to preserve the relative pitch levels and pitch contours of lexical tones is borne out. Furthermore, the effect of foreign melodies and foreign phrases is negligible. Tempo is the only important factor in affecting the tone-melody interface. A loss, or partial loss, of pitch contours occurs on rising tones in faster-paced songs. Nevertheless, crucially, the loss does not result in tonal mismatches. ...." – Henry HO Jul 11 '14 at 3:41
Are not tones just pitches (frequencies)? If you go with the pitches of the song, the tones of the words must give way. – George Chen Oct 13 '14 at 8:43
props to Ohio State, East Asian studies group :) – Mike M Jan 6 at 7:41

Listen to a slow melodious song like 月亮代表我的心  and you should be able to pick out the tones reasonably well as the background music is quite soft and the words are spoken clearly.

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When I first listened to the song, I thought it was "你吻我" (you kiss me) as opposed to "你问我" (you ask me). But the context made it clear that: 你问我爱你有多深 (you ask me how much I love you). – gonnastop Mar 18 '12 at 12:53
thx for the song, it is beautiful. – Stephane Rolland Jul 18 '12 at 20:58

Native speakers can get tones in song by deducing without even realizing, but not by listening - the tones are obliterated as fefe's answer suggested.

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(I'm not a native speaker of Chinese, but an avid musicologist and student of Chinese.)

I've heard at least some Chinese pop music where the tones are certainly not obliterated, though I think it's reasonable to suppose this happens at least some of the time.

My speculation however is that in general something more interesting and complicated happens much of the time: which is that the tonal framework gets modulated and transposed onto the relevant key in the music at the time of performance.

If the key changes or modulates during the piece, the tonal frame modulates along with it.

The vocalist also has the option to alter the tonal framework's position in the key as the melody progresses. The tonal framework will function fine as long as the tones are performed in a way which is internally consistent-- ie relative to the other tones performed in the same temporal context.

This may seem to be overly analytic, but I think it's just scratching the surface of the complexities in this topic... world of wonders.

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Your answer confuses me. What do you mean by "tonal framework"? How does it get "modulated"? How would "modulating" into one "key" be any different from "modulating" into another? – Mike Chamberlain Mar 22 '14 at 6:43
wow it's been awhile since I saw this... Kind of like a musical scale, say a major diatonic, we could start the scale on any arbitrary frequency/note we wanted, and the scale would be organised around, in any of a variety of ways -- that note could be the root or it could be some other note in the scale. In the same way, the Putonghua tonal framework is a kind of scale, with all kinds of regional and individual variations/flavours. So, a singer might be playing around in a diatonic, and simultaneously within a given time window be playing around with the Putonghua tonal system. – Wylie Кулик Mar 22 '14 at 16:40
As they progress through their melody along the diatonic, their root frame of reference for the play within the Putonghua tonal scale moves. And not necessarily in a simplistic way. – Wylie Кулик Mar 22 '14 at 16:45
Western music is like this already if you look at it deeply enough. So many examples of chromaticism play, the phenomenon of 'grace notes', continuous modulations of frequency along a variety of curves... in Jazz, in Appalachian music as well as many other folk traditions it's hardly ever so simplistically adherent to the scales, which are just useful simplifications-- in Beethoven string quartets, there are so many cases where a theme (a kind of fixed pattern) repeated across arbitrary keys/etc. A scale is just a pattern, as is a theme, or a 'tonal system'. Simultaneous play mark the master – Wylie Кулик Mar 22 '14 at 16:55
Most musicians aren't total geniuses though, so sure, definitely there will be lots of cases (eg in cheap pop) where everything is obliterated but the mickey mouse electronically altered synth melody. Another example occured to me: in English pop music -- of course English is tonal also-- if the lyric expresses a question then the tone may have a sliding rise at the end of the question to express the interogative. This wouldn't invalidate them also continuing to adhere more or less to whatever scale they were playing with. Most 'high quality' pop (eg Beatles) has lots cont modulated notes. – Wylie Кулик Mar 22 '14 at 16:59

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