In this mind-boggling language, tones seem to be the be-all and end-all of actually getting any sort of message across, something hard for English speakers as we don’t have it. But it occurred to me – we do. Every piece of music with lyrics ever (unless you listen to drones) changes pitch, giving the word a ‘tone’. But in Chinese, with such regimentally defined tones, how can you account for the changing of the music? Music going down on a word in first tone could change the meaning catastrophically (both the perfectly innocent “Welcome, everyone” and the less… orthodox greeting “Fighting is good” have the pronunciation da jia hao), but if that’s the tune of the music, how is this dealt with?
Apparently the easily flowing lyrics of Chinese music hide a lot more work than their Western counterparts. In many songs, the words must be selected to fit the tone of the music – whilst remaining rhythmic, appropriate and (if you’re lucky) rhyming. Some songs are more laid back and allow for tone errors; one song infamous among Chinese kids is written ‘我們是快樂的好兒童’ (we are happy good kids) but the music results in ‘groose-full-is-quick-sear-drop-very painful ear’.
Top level comedy, don’t you think?
Despite the strict rules (or non-rules), the answer, as always, seems to be context. Whilst funny double meanings can be found, the meaning of a word is usually guessable and singers will usually have the characters in front of them. Chinese likes to make its bold claims about its unassailable and essential tones, but in real life the tones are often missed in fast-paced conversations (or songs!).
Behind the façade of perfectly fitted or avoided tones, native speakers report only being able to identify around 30% of the tones in a rap. Cantonese appears to be more protective of it’s flabbergasting nine tones than Mandarin, but despite pressing them into scared learners on Day One of Chinese, native speakers throw them out of the window when the music starts.
Things I learnt this week:
- Fighting is good, or possibly welcome to this site. I get confused sometimes.
- Chinese is pretending to have strict rules about tones, when it really just doesn’t care.
- For the composers that do try to use tones – we are astounded.
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