1 of 2
1
Mandarin pop
Posted: 27 February 2010 01:50 AM   [ Ignore ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  3100
Joined  2007-02-26

Because of my new place of residence, I get to hear a lot of Mandarin pop songs. Yay.

Unlike slightly more traditional Mandarin music (which I also hear quite a bit), Mandarin pop does not seem to carry any of Mandarin’s tonality.

The tunes are basically the same as any piece of Western pop, (equal temperament, same kinds of key sequence patterns etc) and the vocal pitch is kept constant within syllables, usually: no rising tones, no dipping tones, no falling tones.

So it occurs to me: do Mandarin speakers ever have troiuble understanding it? Is it ever confusing or ambiguous? And if not, would similarly “flattened” Mandarin speech also be comprehensible?

I guess we’d need someone who speaks Mandarin to really answer this.

(Obviously similar questions could be asked of Thai pop, Canto pop, Lao pop etc. and the answer might not be the same in each case.)

Profile
 
 
Posted: 27 February 2010 06:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  3493
Joined  2007-01-29

So it occurs to me: do Mandarin speakers ever have troiuble understanding it?

I think we can answer this a priori, without input from Mandarin speakers, with a confident “No, not any more trouble than speakers of any other language have understanding their pop music.” Pop music is by definition popular, and you wouldn’t compose songs intended to be popular if listeners were going to have trouble understanding it.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 27 February 2010 07:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1221
Joined  2007-04-28

This had never occurred to me before and I have unwillingly been exposed to a lot of (western) derivative Thai pop. It must be hard to sing a falling tone if the music is rising in pitch but you say trad Mandarin music manages it. Mariah Carey is able to be almost comprehensible despite emoting unnaturally over several octaves so presumably the opposite is no big deal in a tonal language. If you get the tone of a word (and therefore its meaning) completely wrong in conversation, native speakers can work it out from context if it is in a sentence. Maybe the same process is operating in Mandarin etc pop.

Do people with a musical ear here detect a clear Liverpudlian accent in Lennon’s or McCartney’s singing? I remember Sinead O’Connor saying that later in her career she began to deliberately sing with an Irish accent. And if you listen to the Proclaimers no way are these not instantly recognisable Scottish brothers. I don’t know. If I knew nothing about Neil Young would I be able to say which side of the pond he was from, and can Americans tell he is a Canadian singer? With great non-singers like Ian Dury, Howard Devoto, and Johnny Rotten we are on safer ground.
I’d be interested to know if any phonetic analysis has been made of singing in the same way it has of speech ie what the parts of the mouth are up to.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 27 February 2010 12:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  2835
Joined  2007-01-31

“No, not any more trouble than speakers of any other language have understanding their pop music.”

Yeah, but that’s often considerable.  The unintelligibility of many English-language rock lyrics is something of a cliche, and a perennial basis of jokes.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 27 February 2010 03:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  3100
Joined  2007-02-26

venomous:

“It must be hard to sing a falling tone if the music is rising in pitch but you say trad Mandarin music manages it.”

Basically the traditional music doesn’t sound all that much like western music. The sung tone varies from what one might consider to be the melody because of the observance of rising, falling and dipping tones within syllables.

“Do people with a musical ear here detect a clear Liverpudlian accent in Lennon’s or McCartney’s singing?”

English speaking singers of popular music from various places often choose to sing with North-East United States accents (except for C&W speakers who usually sing with southern United States accents).

Accents are quite a separate issue. The tonality of Mandarin (I had been led to believe) is quite an essential part of their language, such that the identification of a word depends on the tone.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 28 February 2010 07:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  3493
Joined  2007-01-29

Yeah, but that’s often considerable.  The unintelligibility of many English-language rock lyrics is something of a cliche, and a perennial basis of jokes.

Yes, of course, which is why I added the caveat.  I’m quite sure Mandarin pop is no more unintelligible because of the tones.  For what it’s worth, I knew a little Mandarin when I was living in Taiwan and was able to pick up some lyrics, and my suspicion is that Chinese pop is actually more intelligible than Western, perhaps because there’s no tradition of deliberately singing unintelligibly (see: “Louie Louie").

Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 March 2010 08:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1221
Joined  2007-04-28

They could be singing in crystal-clear tones, beautifully enunciated, like Judy Collins or Joan Baez! I doubt this if it is modern Mandarin pop, though. Pop kids everywhere just like the celebrity and the melody and maybe a lyrical hook. Bob Dylan sings intelligibly if incomprehensibly. Rock shouters are not into the meaning much; they sometimes complement cracking riffs like early Led Zeppelin, however. Wuhey!

OP, I can detect southern cowboy singing but how much of it is because of the music I don’t know. A guy in spotless faux cowboy gear playing twangy stuff or maudlin pedal-steel guitar probably predisposes one to this perception. 
“The tonality of Mandarin (I had been led to believe) is quite an essential part of their language, such that the identification of a word depends on the tone.” This is what I said right before your response. (Happy Chinese New Year!)

To expand, can opera buffs tell if a singer is a native-speaker of what they are singing or not?

Profile
 
 
Posted: 01 March 2010 09:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
RankRank
Total Posts:  93
Joined  2008-05-07

To expand, can opera buffs tell if a singer is a native-speaker of what they are singing or not?

Yes, sometimes. What I find interesting in German, the only language besides English that I could tell such things in, is that singers sometimes retain a regional accent. For exmple, two Viennese singers of the mid twentieth century, Julius Patzak and Erich Kunz, were both recognizably Viennese even when singing standard German works. (Both of them also made a career of singing popular Viennese songs; perhaps that affected their operatic accents.) On the other hand, two slightly younger contemporaries, Leonie Rysanek and Eberhard Wächter, sounded more standard German to my ears. (In interviews, all four were unmistakeably Viennese.)

And then--not opera--but there’s that recording that Leonard Bernstein conducted of West Side Story, with Kiri te Kanawa singing pure English as (Puerto-Rican) Maria and José Carreras singing with a heavy Spanish accent as (U.S. born) Tony.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 02 March 2010 06:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
RankRankRank
Total Posts:  362
Joined  2007-03-05
venomousbede - 27 February 2010 07:21 AM

Do people with a musical ear here detect a clear Liverpudlian accent in Lennon’s or McCartney’s singing?

I spent a fair bit of my youth in church choirs and I noticed early on I didn’t sing in the accent I spoke with (UK southern/Estuarine) - I also found it was quite hard to do deliberately.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 03 March 2010 06:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  3100
Joined  2007-02-26

Look, offtopia’s no crime, but accents and vocal quality really have nothing at all to do with the topic ...
Tonality is regarded as an essential part of Mandarin. Singing Mandarin without the rising, falling, gliding and dipping tones that are used to distinguish its syllables ought to be the equivalent of singing in English but only using one vowel, for instance.

Many sets of words in Mandarin are distinguished only by their tone.
Ma/, Ma\, Ma^, Ma_ are four different words. Take the tone out, and they all sound like Ma_. How can this fail to cause confusion or at least some ambiguity?

Profile
 
 
Posted: 03 March 2010 08:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  4740
Joined  2007-01-03

I’m by no means an expert in any dialect of Chinese, but I’ve always been skeptical of the claims of how hypersensitive to tone those dialects are. How likely are these words to actually be confused when heard in context?

I suspect it’s not unlike the “Chevy Nova in Mexico” urban legend. Yes, it is possible to interpret nova as meaning “no go” in Spanish, but did anyone actually ever do it? The answer is apparently not. After all, English speakers don’t think a carpet is a domesticated animal living in an automobile.

It seems to me that any hypersensitivity to tone would be selected against as the language evolved. Plus, context will foreclose many, if not most, possible interpretations. I suspect that Chinese dialects are more flexible and forgiving of errors in tone than Western popular imagination makes them out to be. I’m not saying that confusion cannot result from the use of incorrect tones in Mandarin, but how often is this a barrier to comprehension in actual speech (or in this case, singing)?

Profile
 
 
Posted: 03 March 2010 10:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1221
Joined  2007-04-28

Yeah, I already said the word can be determined from context if you put it in a sentence, which has been my experience when attempting Thai.
Thai has five tones but not for all monosyllables. Puzzled by the difference in Mandarin between between dipping and falling. Thai has high, low, middle, falling and rising. Maybe the singing debate could be resolved in local karaoke bars after strong drink has been taken.
We really need a speaker of a tonal language to comment here. I read there are a handful of tonal Amerindian languages and wonder how that came about - major linguistic isolation or retaining Asian language forebears stuff? The latter seems unlikely way down from the presumed crossing over the Bering Stait was it? Mind you, many Asian languages are not tonal.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 04 March 2010 04:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1178
Joined  2007-02-14

My boss has been studying Mandarin and is fairly conversant in the language.  He has related an experience of listening to a speaker of a language in which the non-tonal aspects of many of the words were identical to Mandarin but the tones were not.  He was able to understand what was being said but his Mandarin native-speaker hosts could make no sense of it.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 05 March 2010 07:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
RankRank
Total Posts:  31
Joined  2008-09-02

I’m in China for the next few days and I’ll see if I can get an answer regarding the music (I speak functional Mandarin, but not enough to know the answer to the question).  The below might help answer some of the other questions that have been raised.

Tones are integral to understanding Mandarin, but a sentence may still be understood despite the use of incorrect or lack of tones (just as in English, we may still understand someone who mispronounces words).  When does it become incomprehensible?  Depends on the context and the number of other homophones for each “word.”

Even with the correct tones, Mandarin relies more on context for understanding than does English.  Mandarin is much more like the word “set,” i.e., we know the meaning of “set” in a particular sentence because of the context. 

In spoken Mandarin, it’s often necessary to use active listening to avoid misunderstanding (i.e., the listener repeats back/rephrases what was said).  This is needed in spoken language because it loses the precision of the written language, i.e., the exact same spoken “word” can be represented by different characters.  E.g., “sì” has multiple meanings: 4, Buddist temple, feed, like (these words are spoken exactly the same -phonetics and tone, but different characters).  Mandarin has many more homophones than English.

One thing that likely keeps Mandarin in songs understandable despite the lack of tones is that Mandarin doesn’t have the “blurring” of syllables that occurs in English (I’m not sure how to describe this).  It often takes a linguistic to explain the meaning of each syllable in a multi-syllable English word.  In contrast, in Mandarin, all multisyllable words are just one syllable words put together - the pronunication of each syllable remains exactly the same.  E.g., jiā (home) + rén (people) = jiārén (family).  Syllables in Mandarin remain distinct, they don’t “blur” together.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 06 March 2010 03:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
RankRank
Total Posts:  31
Joined  2008-09-02

I asked my student host who is a native of Beijing and she said that despite the lack of tones, songs are understandable because the phraseology often follows a known pattern (which also reflects the importance of context).  This said, she noted that even when she’s read the lyrics, she sometimes still can’t understand Mandarin rapper songs (I didn’t even know Mandarin rap songs existed!!!). 

As an American, I have to admit there are huge numbers of American/English rock songs I’ve heard countless times without understanding the lyrics. 

As a personal example on the importance of context:  I recently learned how to describe myself:  a toxicologist, which is dúli3 xuèjiā (毒理学家).  It’s not a common word.  However, dúlì (independence) is a common term.  The only different between the 2 words is the tone on the 2nd syllable.  People often don’t understand when I say I’m a toxicologist.  I ask “Did I get the tone wrong?” They laugh and say no, I thought you said you were an independence expert.  I’m realizing probably I need to give them more context when I describe my job, i.e., just saying the sentence correctly isn’t enough. 

OP Tipping - I only post once in a while, so I don’t know your new place of residence.  Singapore? 
- Just curious.  Learning Mandarin has been a fascinating process for me.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 09 March 2010 07:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  3100
Joined  2007-02-26

Thanks all for those interesting examples.

“by no means an expert in any dialect of Chinese, but I’ve always been skeptical of the claims of how hypersensitive to tone those dialects are. How likely are these words to actually be confused when heard in context?”

I can relate to this.
My comparison of English with a single vowel was probably over the top, but consider English with the fortis consonants replaced by lenis. Given a single word there would be no way to tell the difference between, say, “pop” and “bob” but with complete sentences you could probably get by.  e.g.

Eleanor Rigby bigs ub the rize in the jurj where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waidz ad the window, wearing the vaze thad zhe geebz in a jar by the door
who is id vor?
All the lonely beeble, where do they all gum vrom?
All the lonely beeble, where do they all belong?

That’s a very interesting example, Faldage, and it reminds me somewhat of the (in my view, willing) inability of Malaysians and Indonesians to understand each other, when to my ears the differences between their tongues are trifling.

Profile
 
 
   
1 of 2
1
 
‹‹ any tips      blue-eyed/fair-haired boy ››