China First Hand

2 March 2006

Tune In

Filed under: Culture,Language — china1sthand @ 11:53 pm


Chinese people love karaoke.  Today my friend got off work early so we went to do Chinese karaoke.  I loved it!  Another thing we should have here!  And I have to tell you – I’ve always been more a rock chic, despising all pop fans. …But Chinese pop songs are pretty good!


In China there is an interesting contradiction between shyness and ambition to be a star.  During my stay they were broadcasting the first Chinese ‘Pop Idol’ – and people really took to this new ‘voting’ idea!  When I visited Shanghai, I passed a very long queue of dressed up youngsters, chatting confidently and registering with officials in front of a temporary stage.  It looked like another TV show audition.  Generally, though, karaoke does not happen in front of strangers.  I went to a high-tech ‘KTV’, where there are different rooms with a big screen, microphone(s) and couch for your friends.  The technology is great – there is such a huge database that even the songs in English gave me too much choice.  The technology was better than in the UK because if you decided not to sing a bit, the voice of the original singer came through instead – and you could change the pitch of the music to suit your voice!  We even had a bar stool with it’s own little screen and microphone(s) – and our own loo!


However, watching my friend sing-along to Chinese songs made me realise – when all words in this language require tones, how can they be pronounced within a tune?!  How do Chinese people understand the lyrics?!  Now this was a difficult question for the Chinese to explain.  I am not convinced by the idea that the tones are expressed independently of the tune.  A tone is a tune!  I ardently listened to Chinese language to practice distinguishing tones, and I couldn’t hear them in pop songs.  Would the lyrics be understood with a different tune?  I don’t think so.  A native Chinese won’t separate the different indicators that helped them understand a word – no native can do that!  You just understand it – using sound and context, and with Chinese they also use tone.  Perhaps the tune and lyrics in Chinese are interrelated so that the lyrics are understood?  If so, is this proof that Chinese music is superior?!


Then this occurred to me:  How does the Chinese language express the intonations we use in English?  Apparently, 90% of communication is non-verbal.  To us, the rise and fall of our voice is an additional level of communication, beyond literal meanings of words.  To some extent, this is innate.  All humans speak with a higher pitch when they are surprised, and a lower pitch is more demeaning.  Your tone of voice also says if you are serious or joking.  It is the basis of sarcasm for example.  One of the reasons tones are difficult for native English speakers to understand is because you have to unlearn these rules that you learnt about language.  Do Chinese not have this?


A skilled presenter uses subtle tone changes to make their spoken word more interesting, to emphasise key points and adjust how they say things according to the message they are giving.  Chinese presenters also vary their voices in these ways.  What I just can’t get my head around is how you tell the difference between this and word tones?!  …The speed of the tone change perhaps?  Certainly, it is a skill that Chinese people have, that I just can’t comprehend.



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