Jump to content
Learn Chinese in China

How do you find the right pitch for the first tone?

Jan Finster

Recommended Posts

I struggle a bit with the first tone. My lovely female teacher says it is sometimes too high, sometimes too low. Especially, she told me the first tones should all be at the same level


How do you find "your" level (pitch)? 


When I say: 你会说英语吗?I speak 说&英  as flat first tones, but at different pitches.  According to my 说 is too low. And to me my 英 sounds unnaturally high to me. Also, I find it difficult to have an "oua" (说) sound at the same pitch as an "i" (英 ) sound. In English and German (at least when I use them) they are naturally at a different pitch (!?) 


  • Good question! 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Site Sponsors:
Pleco for iPhone / Android iPhone & Android Chinese dictionary: camera & hand- writing input, flashcards, audio.
Study Chinese in Kunming 1-1 classes, qualified teachers and unique teaching methods in the Spring City.
Learn Chinese Characters Learn 2289 Chinese Characters in 90 Days with a Unique Flash Card System.
Hacking Chinese Tips and strategies for how to learn Chinese more efficiently
Popup Chinese Translator Understand Chinese inside any Windows application, website or PDF.
Chinese Grammar Wiki All Chinese grammar, organised by level, all in one place.

Your teacher has already pointed out they should be at the same level.

The absolute level differs from person to person. Even the same person may use different pitch levels when whispering and when giving a recitation. But they should be consistent.

Using tone letters, the four tones of Modern Standard Mandarin are described as:

1st tone: 55

2nd tone: 35

3rd tone: 214

4th tone: 51

So it's perfectly clear where the 1st tone should be:

as high as the end of the 2nd tone


as high as the start of the 4th tone.

As for your English/German comparison, well, Chinese is tonal, that's the difference, isn't it?

I'd imagine when you're singing, you have no problem producing different vowel sounds at an arbitrary pitch level. You just need more practice.

  • Helpful 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

As Publius has already pointed out, its all relative. I remember my teacher used to say I went too high. I used to say 'welllll the thing is' in as natural a voice I could, then I'd take the tone of 'weellll' as my first tone for as long as I could remember that pitch. First tone can change its pitch, though, depending on emphasis, speaker situation, etc. so don't worry too much. If you need to get it out higher just to get the tone drilled in, I say go for it, you can calm down later :tong

  • Helpful 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think it's very hard to consciously look for the right level: you end up treating tones like singing, and that's not good.


Best approach is to find a voice coach with a range and timbre close to yours, and then just mimic. If your teacher's voice doesn't match yours well, then you may have a problem. As well, few native speakers have a clear sharp voice that's easy to mimic, so pick your voice coach carefully.


By the way, are you sure it's just a first-tone problem? Many foreigners start to speak Chinese in a higher pitch overall (and many Chinese do this speaking English), and if so you just need to speak Chinese in the same range as your native tongue.

  • Helpful 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Although my (female) teacher is absolutely brilliant, as a male I may not be the only one who feels there’s a lack of male exemplars to emulate (and presumably voice coaches)... possibly this is one reason why we might pitch “too high”... lack of useable exemplars to follow?  So many Chinese teachers seem to be women. 


(I think I read a John Pasden blog post on this recently but not sure if I can find it sitting here in the pub on my iPad)


EDIT: OK this is the blog post, referring to an article on LinkedIn.


Can anyone recommend some youtube/Youku/whatever native male speakers to take a look at?



Link to comment
Share on other sites

Too low a first tone is pretty common.


I think the preponderance of female voices in teaching material recordings also might have something to do with difficulty training it.


Some words are just really difficult for different people.


I have awful problems with 差不多 whereas 说 is pretty straightforward.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

1 hour ago, mungouk said:

:)  I think I may be pitching 出租车 about an octave too high...


But as long as the tone contours are correct, it will just sound like you have hormonal problems rather than bad pronunciation.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Yes, it's all relative.

I'll illustrate using Cantonese. Cantonese has six tones. Three of them are level/flat:

    #1 high level 55 (詩)

    #3 mid level 33 (試)

    #6 low level 22 (是)

So given a single syllable 'si----', how do you know which tone it is?

The answer is, you don't.

Only after hearing more syllables in connected speech can one determine: oh, this is his/her highest pitch, so it's the first tone 詩.

The absolute pitch is irrelevant. What matters is its position relative to other tones.


I can understand why your 说 is low. Because it's preceded by 会, a 4th tone.

Most Europeans have no problem with the 4th tone. It's the easiest. But they do have difficulties when the 4th tone is followed by any other tone.

This is why you need tone pair drills.


And if you still can't find the right pitch for 说, try '能说慢点吗' (˧˥.˥.˥˩.˨˩.˦) as calmly as you can. You'll see it's nothing to do with the vowel.

  • Like 1
  • Helpful 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 9 months later...

Join the conversation

You can post now and select your username and password later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Click here to reply. Select text to quote.

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


  • Create New...