Thursday, September 09, 2004

Chinese Tones in Music

I was originally going to entitle this post, "Who needs Chinese tones, anyway?" because of something that I noted before but never really thought much about: that when one sings Chinese music, the tonal information on the syllables is deleted, since the musical tones overwrite those of the syllables. And yet in most cases people have no problem understanding what's going on in Chinese songs. Of course, this may just be due to context - but nevertheless, I feel (felt) that perhaps Chinese tones were becoming irrelevant, especially in view of the fact (?) that Chinese words, consisting of >1 syllable, probably are more or less unique on the syllable level. That is, if you have two syllables (for example, chang and ge), the chances of there being another combination changge with different tonal features other than the one I am thinking of, namely chang4 ge1, is pretty remote. (It would be neat to do an analysis of this - if only I could find a list of Chinese words as opposed to just characters - to see if what I'm claiming really is true. I'm just speaking from rather limited personal experience.)

But I've decided to reserve judgment until I finish reading this paper, When Tones Are Sung, by Lian-Hee Wee. Seems that the case of Chinese tones in music might be more complex than I thought. Reactions once I've fully digested the paper.

This reminds me of a little paper I wrote explaining why the rule for placing tonal markers on vowels in hanyu pinyin, the commonest method of transcribing Mandarin Chinese, is the way it is. I really must blog about that at some point, since it's pretty neat - but not of any real consequence, and hence not something to publish.

Oh, and, the paper is hosted at the National University of Singapore, much to my surprise. I really ought to get in touch with some of the linguistics people there.


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