How does singing in Chinese work?

Since the Chinese languages are tonal, how do Chinese vocalists make the meaning of their lyrics understood when singing?

Funny you should ask that. My first thought was to say that song-tonality and speech-tonality are different, which is kinda true, but I guess that other bit is that your brain is a flexible machine and 1) automatically corrects for the melody’s influence and 2) works out the meaning from context. Another thing that I’ve been thinking about is how Chinese speakers mostly don’t stick to the textbook tones. I’m from a province where the speakers have a certain accent, and where the question “Have you eaten?” serves as a sort of evening greeting. In standard Mandarin “Have you eaten?” is “Ni(3) chi(1) fan(4) le ma?” with a rising tone at the end of the sentence (because you’re asking a question). where the numbers indicate tonality. But where I come from people say “Ni(1) chi(3) fan(4) le ma?” with the tone falling towards the end of the sentence. Also note that even with changes in tone due to the sentence being a question the sentence is still perfectly intelligible.

Anyway if you’re looking for a definite answer I haven’t got one, but I would say that if you speak Chinese, you have the tones programmed into your head (there’s only 4 after all, or 7 if you speak Cantonese :eek:) you can separate each tone from the sounds of the sentence. There’s also that context thing - in any situation there’s a limited number of possibilities as to what word a sound could be; most of the time there’s only one possibility, so you automatically hear it as that. You do this sort of filling in the gaps plenty when speaking English too, since nobody hears every word others say with perfect clarity. I’m no linguist so I’m sorry for the clumsy vocabulary, but I hope this helps.

Now I’m wondering that too. I don’t think csharpmajor has the whole answer, because I’ve found native chinese speakers to be surprisingly inflexible about that. Two of my friends are native chinese speakers, while a third is trying to learn it. I forget the exact circumstances, but let’s say we were in a bubble-tea establishment when my friend tried to pronounce the word for ‘tapioca’ while looking at a drink. He got nothing but stares - when he said the english word, the two native speakers said ‘Oh!’ and said something that sounded exactly the same to me (apparently his intonation was off).

That surprised me enough to ask about it, but I didn’t really get a good answer. Now you could tell me I’ve got some dud Chinese here, but intonation really does seem to be crucial.

Intonation is both crucial and not-so-crucial. With any language there is a fair bit of variance within the same sound. The trick to speaking a language is knowing how much you can afford to vary, and where. If you say a sentence in English and then get a friend to say the same sentence they’ll sound different, but you’ll be able to understand both versions. Get someone who doesn’t know English to say the sentence, and chances are the difference between their pronounciation and yours won’t be that much greater than the difference between your friend’s and yours, especially if you and your friend have different accents. However, it might not be so easily apparent what they are trying to say. This is pretty much the same thing. Your non-Chinese speaking friend was probably stuffing up an important part of “tapioca” while a Chinese singer singing about tapioca will be able to change his or her pronounciation of the word without completely mangling it.

Another thing - I still think foreigners put too much importance on intonation when really, it’s just another part of speech. Did the Chinese speakers actually tell your friend his intonation was wrong? Because he could have just as easily mispronounced a vowel or consonant. Expecially consonants. Chinese for tapioca is “xi mi”. The X sound doesn’t exist in English and most English speakers tend to approximate it as a Z or an S. They also probably wouldn’t pronounce the I following it, saying something closer to “see mee”. Eh.

I think it’s the relative intonation that’s important when singing. I’ve found when westeners try and say chinese, they come up with completely random tones which means I have no idea what they are trying to say. however, as long as you keep the tones the same relative to each other, you can shift up and down octaves with no problem.

I’ve been playing around a bit with recording my voice into the computer and playing it back with different tonal shifts and it seems to support my hypothesis.

There’s been scientific study of this. In Mandarin, actually, singers simply don’t reproduce tones at all, and song melodies don’t tend to take tone into account (though it wouldn’t surprise me if singers believe they do sing them.) Thing is, tone is only one aspect of the Chinese phonetic system, and in Mandarin has a fairly weak tonal system, so for the most part things remain comprehensible.

In Cantonese music (and in Peking Opera, which is a much more traditionalist sort of art form) tones are sort of reproduced - essentially, the endpoint of the tone contour is sung, and in different lines of a song with the same melody, the tones of parallel syllables are the same (or at least have the same endpoint.)

Tones are just relative for the most part in Chinese, though - it’s the tone’s relationship to neighboring syllables and its shape, not the absolute pitch value, that really matters. So a syllable can be sung with the right tone contour - rising, falling, etc. - quite easily even without screwing up the melody.

Basically, in Chinese they do not pronouce the tones when singing. I’ve sung songs in Chinese and we just skip them. Context provides most of the meaning and you can write around what doesn’t. Of course, Beijing Opera does pronounce the tones(which helps explain why it sounds like it does).