Unraveling the relation between mandarin tones and musical melody

Lian Hee Wee*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

    28 Citations (Scopus)


    It is physiologically impossible for the same set of vocal chords to simultaneously produce two distinct and different pitch contours. Thus when singing songs from a tonal language such as Mandarin, it is likely that there will be conflicts between articulation of the linguistic tone and the articulation of the musical melody. Envisage for example, a syllable that is linguistically specified for a rising tonal contour being associated to a melody requiring a falling contour or a flat contour. In such a situation, satisfaction of the melody would result in incomprehensibility of language. The reverse is equally devastating since then song would be totally superfluous. Nonetheless, a survey of Mandarin songs indicates that linguistic tones are often not faithfully preserved in tune, consequently giving rise to the question on how listeners are able to decipher the words that are sung. This paper argues that the crux of the matter lies in the identification of two elements, headship in music and headship in linguistic tones. A head, in music or language, is a special position where the features of the residing element are prominent. In essence, it is the preservation of contrasts between prominent features at these special positions that listeners of Mandarin songs are able to reconstruct the lyrics from partial segmental and tonal information.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)128-144
    Number of pages17
    JournalJournal of Chinese Linguistics
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Jan 2007

    Scopus Subject Areas

    • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
    • Linguistics and Language

    User-Defined Keywords

    • Chinese songs
    • Chinese tones
    • Phonology
    • Tone-tune-correspondence


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