HK Magazine Archive

Ask Mr. Know-It-All: How do you sing in a tonal language like Cantonese?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 June, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:44pm

Dear Mr. Know-It-All,
We all know that Cantonese is a tonal language. So how do people sing in Chinese? – Tone Deaf

The western musical scale has 12 semi-tones, while Cantonese has six to nine spoken tones, or inflections, and Putonghua just four. Sounds like a nightmare no matter how you mix it: But what’s interesting is the different approaches that Putonghua and Cantonese take to their pop tunes.

On the whole, music in Putonghua discards the relationship of tone and meaning, relying instead on context to fill in the listener. After all, with more than 100,000 characters and just four tones, contextual clues are built into the very makeup of Putonghua. Take, for example, the first line of Teresa Teng’s Mandopop megahit “The Moon Represents My Heart”:


nǐ wèn wǒ ài nǐ yǒu duō shēn

It means: “You ask me how deep my love is for you.” But tonally, the line is sung more like 


nǐ wén wǒ āi nǐ yǒu duō shēn

Which translates, poorly, to: “You smell my sorrow for you, how deep is it?”

Of course, the grammar is off in this line and you’d have to willfully go out of your way to misunderstand Teresa: context fills in the gaps, and that’s mostly how Mandopop gets by.

But Cantonese isn’t willing to just accept that. Cantonese opera, for instance, has a long history of matching its tones to notes. So for example, traditionally the higher tones would be sung to the notes of E5, G5 or D5, while the mid-tone was sung on C5. When western-influenced Cantopop arrived, it took up this tradition too. What that means is that a well-written Cantopop song will do its best to match tone and tune, although with more fluidity than Cantonese opera.

How does it work? It boils down to this: words with higher tones use higher pitched notes, while lower toned notes use lower notes. It’s mostly relative: so if the next note in the song is lower in pitch, then the corresponding word has to be lower in tone as well. The melody and the words work together, and that flow allows your brain to put the whole thing together: It’s musical context.

As you might imagine, it’s a considerable challenge for the Cantonese lyricist, who has to write songs within the constraints not just of length and meaning, but also in terms of constantly varying tones. Think of it as trying to write an entire song in English, where every single word has to rhyme with every other word, AND be worth singing.

An example of why matching tone to tune is important in Cantonese: Take the hymn “His Sheep Am I.” Jammed into the extant western tune, the central line 我是主的羊 ngor si zhu dik yeung, “I am the sheep of the Lord,” sounds exactly like “I am a pig’s face.”

A cautionary tale for lyricists, songwriters and missionaries alike: Language is a fickle thing. 

Mr. Know-It-All answers your questions and quells your urban concerns. Send queries, troubles or problems to [email protected].