Singing in tonal languages

When people sing in Mandarin, they usually don’t stick to the tones, but in Cantonese I understand that singers try to incorporate the tones into the tune. According to an interesting blog I came across today, the tones are discarded in Thai when singing.

Does anybody know what happens to tones in other languages when they’re sung?

If any of you are able to sing in a tonal language, don’t be shy! It would interesting to hear a recording.

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This entry was posted in Language, Music.

14 Responses to Singing in tonal languages

  1. AR says:

    I was wondering about this and was going to ask about it here. When song writing in Cantonese, it must be very hard because the words and the tones/tune must rhyme.

  2. Karim says:

    But if linguistic tones are dropped in Mandarin, doesn’t this change the meaning of the lyrics? And if listeners can still comprehend the meaning without much trouble (from context for example), does this mean Mandarin tones are somehow … redundant?

  3. Alain Vaillancourt says:

    Swedish isn’t a true tonal languages but it has a plethora of rising and descending tones on different words, which makes it stand out to my ears, when compared to Danish, for instance. I’ve heard a street “singer” in Stockholm trying to keep the tones and the result seemed ghastly to me. On the other hand, when Bergman did his “Magic Flute” in Swedish he had the actors/singers keep the accented words in the recitative, but discard them as needed when they went into their arias or duets.

  4. Edwin says:

    Being a native Cantonese speaker, I have always been suffering from songs with lyrics incoherent with the tones. AR said it right. It is extremely difficult to write Cantonese lyrics.

    All Cantonese pop songs have the correct tones, otherwise they won’t survive. But for songs like traditional hymns, which are translated, it is next to impossible to maintain the meaning and at the samt time rhyme and keep the tones. Usually, the tones are not kept.

    Indeed, it is very uncomfortable to sing those hymns. For example, ‘My Lord is great’ usually becomes ‘My Pig is great’.

    Another type of songs with no tonal coherence, is children songs. People think kids don’t care so they don’t bother fitting in the right tones. I believe this is a bad idea. Kids learn the words when they sing, and they need to know the correct tones.

    There is the other extreme though. Sometimes song writers try to keep the tones, and the quality of the lyrics go down. Cantonese pop songs in recent years suffer from this fate. The lyrics contains the correct tones and rhyme, but are usually shallow with not much meaning. I guess the youngsters don’t really care about the meaning anyway.

  5. Lillian Sagtit says:

    Hi my background is Indonesian and our langauge does the same when we sing.

  6. Janis says:

    When I’ve heard singing in tonal languages, there is often a quaver at the beginning of the word that marks the tone (rising, falling, whatever), then the voice settles on the correct pitch for the song. It makes for an odd sound — almost the reverse of non-tonal Western-style singing when the vibrato is at the end and the beginning is bell-clear.

  7. Scott says:

    Hi, Simon, thanks for stopping by my blog. This is an interesting thread and discussion.

    Edwin says that tones often disappear in when children’s songs are translated into Cantonese. It was actually a children’s song translated into Thai that prompted my post, and it’s pretty clear in that song that the singers are ignoring the tones.

    I’ve heard a tiny amount of more traditional Thai singing, and it seems like traditional singers might pronounce tones more of the time.

    I would be interested to know about Thai pop songs for adults. I can’t hear tones in those songs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are absent.

  8. *sighs* Oh no, the old “Thai uses no tones when singing” myth rears its ugly head again. Thai drops tones in singing as much as English drops word stress in songs. By the very nature of music, you can tweak intonation or stress to fit the rhythm of the song. As much as it may seem to the layman that Thai dispenses all together with tone when singing, the fact is that such a description is inaccurate and easily debunked with sound phonetic analysis.

  9. Scott says:

    Lleij, thanks for your reply. Interesting, and I defer to your greater expertise. :) I was just reporting what I hear when Barney and his entourage sing the counting song, which certainly could be inaccurate.

  10. Janis says:

    Thai drops tones in singing as much as English drops word stress in songs.

    English doesn’t do this, though. Word stress is a little looser when singing, but on the whole, lyrics go out of their way to put the stressed syllable on the downbeat. It’s an odd sound when they don’t and is sometimes used for effect, like in Alanis Morissette’s “Uninvited.” “I am flat-TERED by your fascination with me.”

    Lyrics after, after all, poetry, and the proper placement of syllable stress is a central part of meter.

  11. English doesn’t do this, though. Word stress is a little looser when singing, but on the whole, lyrics go out of their way to put the stressed syllable on the downbeat. It’s an odd sound when they don’t and is sometimes used for effect, like in Alanis Morissette’s “Uninvited.” “I am flat-TERED by your fascination with me.”

    Lyrics after, after all, poetry, and the proper placement of syllable stress is a central part of meter.

    Right, Janis…that’s what I was saying. In Thai, most forms of poetry have strict restrictions on meter as based on vowel length and tone.

    Scott, no problem. And I apologize if I sounded flippant….it’s just that I’ve heard that a lot…. and it just isn’t true. One interesting thing that may be going on is that native speakers of non-tonal languages interpret tone using the right-hemisphere musical part of their brain, where as native speakers of tonal languages process tone with the left-hemisphere linguistic part of their brain. Perhaps the reason non-native speakers “hear” tone being dropped in songs is neuro-linguistic in origin. *shrugs* Give me some grant money and perhaps I’ll be able to research this….:)

  12. Ben L. says:

    As I recall, a mis-accentuation in English song is called a barbarism.

  13. Tyler says:

    “By the very nature of music, you can tweak intonation or stress to fit the rhythm of the song.”

    I was reading a wikipedia article which talks about tonal language and it says that intonation, and tones in the language are not the same thing. Intonation is when you raise your voice at the end of a sentence like in English. Anyway, I guess that’s not what you were referring to.

    Does that mean that if you’re a Thai singer, you would sing a pitch a bit sharp or a bit flat (less than a semitone) in relation to the melody, depending on the tone of the syllable?

    Do Thai people suffer the same problems Cantonese people suffer when hearing songs and not being able to understand the lyrics?

  14. Giuseppe says:

    Dear Friend,

    This is a very interesting discussion for me, and I ask for some help. I would really like to know if anyone knows for sure that there exists a tonal language which is sung WITHOUT regard to tones. Please, I need sure claims not opinions; any bibliographical information is also much appreciated. Thanks. Beppe.