if tones are so important in chinese as to even distinguish shades of meaning, how can a chinese sing a song? in music every syllable has its own note/tone, so when we sing a song, we must disregard the appropriate tone and apply the musical note to that chinese character... for example we must say "zai"(in...at...) with a falling pitch, but what if the note in the song necessitates us to pronounce "zai" with rising pitch????...


2 Answers 2


Simple answer:

I’ve been asked a number of times: if Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, what happens when you sing in Mandarin? Well, the answer is the melody takes over and the tones are ignored. Pretty simple.

From sinosplice.com - Tones In Chinese Songs.

A graphic representation of tones spoken vs. sung in Mandarin [also from Sinosplice]:

enter image description here

Sometimes, though I think, if you listen closely a lot of people are included to sing the tone even though they don't need to.

  • then my question gets enlargened: if we can ignore tones when singing, can't we also ignore them when speaking? if the aim is to make ourselves understood, we can talk freely in chinese without tones so long as the addressed/listener understands what we want to say/convey....
    – user5949
    Jul 9, 2014 at 15:23
  • That's quite an involved question - but before even trying to answer that question it gets even more complicated: tones also change across dialects (even when the 'pinyin' pronunciation is the same) and a lot of times if there are two people speaking their own, separate, dialects to one another they just need to base their understanding on educated guesses.
    – Mou某
    Jul 9, 2014 at 15:33
  • 2
    @user5949 actually as a Chinese some time I can not understand some song. I need to find its written lyric to understand. So tone is really important when you speak Chinese. For example: 《爱的主打歌》 has one lyric “你是我的主打歌。” This “主打歌(Title song)” sounds really like “猪大哥(Mr. Pig)". So the "you're my title song(works as Mr. right here)" turns into "you're my Mr. Pig" Jul 9, 2014 at 15:34
  • my last word: though a 45-year-old speaker of turkish language who feels closer to indo-european languages, i won't give up trying to learn a sino-tibetan language, i.e.mandarin chinese :)
    – user5949
    Jul 9, 2014 at 15:47
  • thank you for your answer, but sorry, that's not a simple answer... I had to check the linked article to understand the point, which is that tones are not used much if at all in Mandarin songs. I knew that, but people asking the question wouldn't.
    – Kai Carver
    Oct 26, 2016 at 6:21

That's why it is hard writing Chinese lyrics .... rather hard for Mandarin songs (4 tones) .... and very hard for Cantonese songs (9 tones). And don't forget to maintain the rhyme.

If the tone of a character do not match the tone of song, it is easy to be mistaken as another character. Experienced singers may tweak the tone slightly as the last remedy. In most cases, native speakers could deduce the correct character by the term or the whole sentence when listening to such songs.

Many hymns in Hong Kong were filled with Cantonese lyrics of the wrong tones. They all sound extremely odd to native Cantonese speakers. Luckily, the vocabulary used are quite predictable and most people can understand the hymns.

People also make jokes through lyrics with deliberate wrong tones. "Mcdull Kindergarden Song" (春田花花幼稚園校歌) is a good example. There is even a wiki page. To translate the first sentence:

我們是快樂的好兒童 (written) = We are happy good kids

鵝-滿-是-快-烙-滴-好耳痛 (sounded) = groose-full-is-quick-sear-drop-very painful ear

Funny, isn't it?

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