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Lyrics for tonal languages: A sloppy investigation




To what extent do lyrics have to correspond to the tones in tonal languages? I knew they had to, to some extent, but I wanted to find out more about what the rules were. I could hear a strong correspondence in some songs (especially Cantonese) but not others. It seems sometimes tones are completely ignored.

So...I Googled "聲調 歌詞" and found the Wikipedia article 填詞, which said (as of 2013-03-14 09:56‎)



...which might be BS, since I know Minnan has just as many or more phonemic tones than Cantonese, but I'll take note of it anyway.

Let's look at some songs. First, a Mandarin song 七里香, written and sung by Jay Chou, with lyrics by Vincent Fang. Just one verse of

since I don't feel like analyzing so much stuff, and since choruses tend to be more dynamic. So, here's the chorus, the first time, without all the singer's ornaments (which might matter, but probably not as much as the actual notes). I put tone letters next to each character as one would speak the lyrics.


Doesn't seem to have any rule about this, as the Wikipedia article described. For example, at "我的愛溢出" one wouldn't expect 出 the high tone character at the lowest note in the little scale there. Another example is 窗臺. It sounds like 闖胎 or something. And this doesn't have to do with tone but stress seems awkward at times the "子" in "院子" is musically stressed. Same with the first-beat-and-fifth-up-to 的 in "也無法將我的" and "像詩裏紛飛的."

But I've also heard that older songs do more to incorporate tones. Let's look at 晴雯歌 by Cao Xueqin, an insert to the novel Dream of the Red Chamber, set to music (with the modern Beijing dialect in mind) by Wang Liping as an insert to the 1987 drama. Starting

until after they repeat "心比天高..."


Less objectionable, somehow, but somehow I still don't see any real intent to use the tones. Sure, at the end he didn't put 天 on the A and instead saved it for the higher D, but at the beginning there's a 比 on a higher note than 心 and 天. There's "靈巧," with the 巧 on the highest note in the range.

Now let's look at something in Cantonese, 離家出走 by Mark Lui, with lyrics by Albert Leung, sung by Janice Vidal, from



Without exception, the endpoints of the tones (and tone letters) correspond with the notes. A few parts sound close to how one would speak it, such as "也是我運氣." Ornaments might play a role in this, as one can often hear a lower grace note before characters with rising tones. The result is highly intelligible lyrics. This song isn't special, AFAIK, as Cantonese lyrics are usually written in such a manner. So I guess the Wikipedia article is kind of right although some details might be messed up.



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A very interesting investigation! While reading your post, I thought of the song 《恰似你的温柔》by 邓丽君 and《一生的朋友》by 费玉清. I've always wondered if people think the lyrics sound like “掐死你的温柔" and "你是我医生的朋友" haha :lol:

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Brilliant Hoffman! I had often wondered this myself. I have always listened for a tone-melody connection when listening to Mandarin music but never found it.

But then you put up this stunning Cantonese example! I wonder how representative this is of Cantonese lyrical music. I also wonder to what extent the songwriter is conscious of the connection.

In English lyrics, meter is important, although the songwriter does not necessarily consciously try to match syllable lengths and stresses -- rather they just write what "sounds right". I have been listening to quite a bit of English lyrics lately composed by francophones, and, though creative, they often contain jarring "mistakes" in their meter. I guess it's hard to get it right coming from French.

But on topic again, if there is a general pattern along the lines of your findings, I wonder why Mandarin music seems to be tone-deaf...

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I've always been fascinated by this topic! But it's extremely knotty. This amateur's intuition is that Cantopop Cantonese is a more rarefied language, and as a "high" form is more subject to the constraints of (pace Casti/Salieri/R. Strauss) prima le parole. That would be an element in explaining the prevailing culture of Cantopop, as opposed to Mandopop or Tâi-pop.

Whether Cantopop's tendency to tone-sensitive word setting has any relationship with the tonal phonology of the language itself... my guess is that it is related to the fact that in Hong Kong Cantonese, the number of pitch contours is rather low (three, moving towards two), with a dominance of level tones of relatively fixed or moderately falling pitches. This is lower than the number of pitch registers amongst the phonemic tones (three, moving toward four). I do hear the importance of keeping the rising tones intact when singing Cantopop: that distinctive portamento is super common, and seems to be realised whenever possible.

Though there are four lemma contours for Mandarin, in practice I've never heard the 上声 realised with any sort of pitch dip or raise in music, so these reduce to three clearly defined contours, and two pitch levels. To what extent are rising tones and falling tones (the latter of which are much more salient in spoken Mandarin of most varieties than in not-quite-modern Cantonese) realised in modern Mandopop sounds like a good project (can't quite check whether it's been done yet).

I don't know much Taiwanese (or any other form of) Hokkien, and haven't listened to much of its music; I can say that there are three contours (preserved in sandhi as well), and (depending on the grouping) two or three levels.

That big catch-all lifesaver of language- and song-intelligibility, "context", would be useful, but only if it can be properly quantified. Does the increasingly disyllabic nature of Mandarin make it easier to take context into account? Is there an interaction of stress with meter in Mandopop? If such an interaction exist, does it result in stressed tones being taken into account more commonly than unstressed tones?

Thai's five phonemic tones are composed, broadly speaking, of three registers and three contours, a lot like Mandarin. But why are tones (or at least tone contours) more salient in most Thai singing (especially the realisation of the falling tone) than in Mandarin? There's also tone-phonation interaction, such as in Vietnamese, where at least some of the creaky voice / glottalisation is preserved in singing. The phonation types can be considered as being added to two of the tones, although they are usually thought of in that way,

Another facet: to what extent is length involved? Like metrical stress and tonal register, phoneme length (whether it refers to vowel or consonant length) is directly affected by music. As the connection between Mandarin's tones and the length of its syllables is well-established, there needs to be some investigation into how these interact in music: is the Mandarin third tone realised as the "long" or "longer-than-standard" note? In Cantonese, vowel length relates to vowel quality (like in the vast majority of English varieties which have significant musical culture) but can influence tone too. In the cases that it can, does it?

(Of course, the length issue has repercussions for quite a lot of languages, including a large number of European ones. Czech and Hungarian are the languages with strong length contrasts as well as famous musical traditions, but any diction student of German or Italian knows of [and dreads?] the length-related pitfalls in those languages too).

Answers as clearly marked DOIs to be posted on a postcard somewhere on this forum.

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