While people in China generally understand my tones (unless I use the wrong tone by mistake), I find I do not match either the height of their highs or the drop-off of their falling tones. My voice is fairly low in English so of course I would not try to match the absolute pitch of tones used by a soprano. But I am pretty sure that even the lowest-voiced native Chinese speakers are putting more contour into their tones than I currently do.

I wonder if I could improve my tone contours by drilling on the tones while hearing musical notes to indicate the high, middle, and low parts of my desired range. For example I might practice saying first tone to match D above middle C, and third to go from maybe B below middle C to G below and back up to A. I know there will not be fixed correct absolute tones even just for my own use. This would be to train me in tonal agility.

Has anyone succeeded using this kind of technique to increase tonal range? Or is there some other good technique more specific than just listening a lot and trying hard?

The clear and sophisticated discussion of tone in Yen-Hwei Lin's Sounds of Chinese (Cambridge 2007) reminds me to say this question is about drill on fine pronunciation of the basic tones in isolated syllables. I know there are other issues for actual speech beyond the usual textbook descriptions of sandhi on 不 bù, 一 yī , and successive third tones.

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    I believe there's no "standard pitch" for tonal range. "Too flat" might be your misconception. To my ears, some big brother's tedious speeches on the CCP national congress could be called "too flat", but still, I can't say the pronunciation is wrong. – Stan Feb 1 '16 at 6:19
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    Tones are not absolute pitch levels, so you don't need to be musical or compare it to mus. tones. The only thing that really counts is contrast. Mandarin tones are more accents (every word having it's built in individual "trademark" accent) than mus. tones. If you can distinguish a steady mid-level flat tone, a rising and a sharp falling one, can make your voice dip a bit, that's already OK. Actually, since picking up Mandarin, I can tell that some English and other languages speakers have "3rd tones" at the end of their sentences, their voice changes, like a Mandarin 3rd tone. Sounds funny. – Drunken Master Feb 1 '16 at 8:38
  • The best drill I have found is contrasting all the 4 tones: the 1st against the 3rd, the 2nd against the 4th, 1st against the 4th, etc. Make a small diagram, like a compass: the 1st tone is the 'North', the 2nd is 'E', the 3rd is 'S', the 4th is 'W'. Jump from any "heading" to another one, pick some example words for each, especially homophone syllables and make sure you can make them distinct enough. – Drunken Master Feb 1 '16 at 8:46
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    I want to chip in here and say that there is research (that I can't find at the moment) that suggests that many students who learn Mandarin as a second language do have a too narrow pitch range, which is what OP describes here. It's not necessarily imagined and can sometimes be a problem. I have no good solution for it, though, other than trying to work on it if you think it's a problem. – Olle Linge Feb 1 '16 at 16:48
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    For many Chinese learners having difficulty with the tonal range, the obstacle is psychological rather than mechanical, and neither "musical training" or "voice therapy" works. Using the word 外国人 as an example, the correct way of saying 外 is in a falling tone so prominent that is almost uncomfortable or at least seemingly over-exaggerated to English ears as they naturally connect a strong falling tone to animated speech as what it is in English. I'm not sure if this is relevant to your case but if it is, raising awareness is helpful, as well as stretching your comfort zone of speech. – NS.X. Feb 2 '16 at 1:52
up vote 2 down vote accepted

I think it's true that Chinese speakers use a wider pitch range than English speakers, or at least a wider range than most American English speakers. I blame it on Clint Eastwood.

Unfortunately it's pretty hard to change ingrained vocal habits.

One way I've found to practice is to imagine some situation where the English intonation comes closer to Chinese tones. For example, when I practice 2nd tone words, I imagine I'm answering a telephone call. Hello? Wei? Shei?

Finding a better voice to model can also help. If your voice is naturally deep as you say, try listening to the 1994 Three Kingdoms tv series (it's on Youtube, in some versions with sub-titles); the actors who dub the voices for Zhang Fei and Guan Yu both have deep voices that might be more appropriate models for you.

Finally, bear in mind that pitch is not the only element of tones; loudness and length are also very important in good tonal intonation.

  • Excellent suggestion of what to watch, for this very purpose! Clear dialogue, helpful vocal registers. – Colin McLarty Feb 2 '16 at 19:23
  • Another advantage to Three Kingdoms is just now hitting me as I start the 14th of 90 episodes: You get many hours of exposure to each of a few voices, all all talking about the same things. Coming to this after the several hours of Chinesepod's Say It Right series has been terrific for my ear and my voice. – Colin McLarty Jun 10 '17 at 15:57

There is data on this matter. http://www.zainea.com/f0_m%26f.pdf present data showing that English speakers who study Mandarin typically use more tonal range in Mandarin than in English but substantially less than native Mandarin speakers do. Hardly surprising. And it is known that musical training helps.

http://www.scilt.org.uk/portals/24/library/slr/issues/24/24_5_tsai.pdf

says:

Chen (1974) compared the pitch range between English and Chinese speakers. The results showed that Mandarin needs a pitch range 1.5 times wider than English, and that native English speakers do not have this range naturally. The author claimed that native speakers of a non-tonal language need to widen their pitch range to successfully acquire a tonal language. Wong and Perrachione (2006) studied a group learning Mandarin tones, and found that “large individual differences were observed. Learning success was found to be associated with the learner’s ability to perceive pitch patterns in a nonlexical context and their previous musical experience”. Experienced teachers have also reported that students with musical training learn Mandarin faster.

The only advice I found was for students to try harder. Too often, though, "trying harder," without explicit guidance, only reinforces habits you already have. No one that I found suggested either

1) students with musical experience should see the known data on what pitches native speakers actually use, so the students can aim for a much closer match to native pronunciation than most ever hear about today. As monalisa says, a native speaker's pitches vary. Data shows even a single first tone can drop its pitch slightly at the end! But research shows the physical pitch in the sense of "fundamental frequency" of the sounds is truly a key part of perceived Mandarin tones.

2) students without much musical experience should spend some time using tuning forks or a keyboard to learn to hear pitch better.

I think this is neglected because too many teachers in the US are just convinced American students can never have very good Mandarin pronunciation anyway, so they don't want to worry about "fine points."

Tuning forks are helping me now, and i will pass on the little bit I have learned. It seems best to focus on one note for the high level tone. This is not surprising: Studies show people are consistently better at using the low part of their vocal range and need more training to extend their high end. A tuning fork is extremely convenient. Pitch sources free on-line and on phone apps sounded bad to me -- I did not try paying for better ones. Electronic tuners seem like overkill. I don't have a piano. Pitch pipes make less pure notes than a natural human voice (they produce more harmonics), so they are a bad model.

Left to myself, I radically misjudged both the pitches i was using and what I should do about them. My voice is not really very low, only I stay very much in the low end of it in English (this may indeed be due to Clint Eastwood). Overreacting to this, I initially aimed far too high for high tones (A440).

The standard textbook advice is: find the high end of your natural speaking range. They do not say how, and anyway this is wrong. No one outside of Chinese opera uses the actual extreme high end of their natural (i.e. non-falsetto) range in speech.

Data on page 210 of https://books.google.com/books?isbn=1139452150 suggests I should better aim for something close to G190 for my first tones, more than an octave below what I had first tried. The more I practice, the better that pitch sounds to me.

Tuning forks are surprisingly hard to find so I will point out that many adjustable forks cover the whole range that https://books.google.com/books?isbn=1139452150 found for one male voice, and do not go as high as Middle C (256--261 depending on which scale it is for). But most sets of non-adjustable tuning forks start at middle C and go up. What https://books.google.com/books?isbn=1139452150 found for one female voice uses tones above and below middle C. Of course keyboards cover all this range and much more.

Of course this is training, it is artificial. In actual speech i will not (and should not) have a fixed pitch for first tones or any other tones. But today I spoke with Chinese friends for the first time since I began work with the tuning forks. I heard their tones more accurately than I had before. And I could copy their tones more accurately, or adapt them more appropriately to my own vocal register, than I did before.

This is an interesting question, and it got me thinking for the last couple of days. Here's my two cents.

Rather than try to match your pitches to some model recordings, have you tried matching them to your personal highs and lows when speaking English? Try to notice how high and low you can go in different language contexts. An example that comes to mind is, if you run into someone you haven't seen in years, you probably say "How are you" with more contours than when you use the same three words to greet someone you see every day. Try to match your high Mandarin tones to your highest English pitch and your low to your lowest. That may help to increase your range a bit.

Each person has a pitch range whatever language s/he speaks. When speaking a tonal language such as Chinese, it is often used very consciously since a wrong pitch often means a wrong word. In English, however, there are no such worries so many people tend to use the middle range in everyday situations. But they really are capable of a much bigger range. You mentioned that when speaking English, your voice is low, but what is more of interest is whether it is "low and relatively flat" or "low and, for lack of a better word, theatrical." If it's the former, perhaps it can explain why you feel your tonal range in Chinese is not wide enough.

  • I wondered about this. It seems I would need some discipline at least for a while, to keep my high tones at that natural high, and the lows at that natural low. If I can find a good note just a little above my English-language natural high on a piano keyboard, then I can use that to keep me on track -- to make me hold that good high note, as a training device. And similarly find a note just a bit below my English-language natural low, and use that note to make me keep reaching that low. But I don't know if this can work. – Colin McLarty Feb 2 '16 at 23:11
  • @ColinMcLarty I don't know if it will work either. Intuitively, I have doubts because spoken pitches shift. At least mine do. I know I don't use the same pitches every time I say the same word. But musical notes are constant. An A, for instance, is always 440Hz. But then, it doesn't hurt to try it as a training device. I would be interested to know if it will indeed help you. Please post back. – monalisa Feb 4 '16 at 21:50

protected by Stan Feb 2 '16 at 14:52

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