2. Introduction to Tones

In English, people use pitch to indicate different sentence functions or to convey emotional nuance. Try reading these two sentences aloud:

You bought a book.
You bought a book?

Notice the pitch of your voice when reading the second sentence.  Does it go up when you read the word book?  Would the meaning of the sentence change if your voice went up on the word you … or the word bought?  In English, the word with rising intonation is the detail being questioned.  If book has rising intonation, the speaker is looking to clarify that you bought a book rather than some other item.  If bought has rising intonation, the speaker is looking to clarify whether you bought a book rather than borrowing one.

Now read the sentences below and notice the pitch used on the word well  (skip the audio for the moment).

Depending upon your individual style of speaking and accent, the pitch of your voice may go up, go down, or stay flat as you read the word well. Now go back and listen to the recordings of these four phrases. Is the pitch of the voice what you would expected?

In the book example we started with, we saw that the pitch of individual syllables may shift the meaning of the phrase by changing its emphasis.  In this example we see that the pitch of individual syllables may also change as part of an overall pattern of a sentence or phrase, as in the well examples.  In both examples, however, the meaning of the individual words are not altered by the change in pitch.

The variations of pitch used for well  are actually very close to four main tones used in Mandarin Chinese.  Standard Chinese has five tones, each of which has a relative pitch height and pitch contour. Contour describes the shape of the pitch change, e.g. rising, falling, or flat. In Chinese, a change in the pitch of an individual syllable usually alters the meaning of a word.  For example, the syllable ma has at least four different meanings, depending on its tone: mom (first tone), hemp (second tone), horse (third tone), scold (fourth tone), or a question particle (neutral tone).

So let’s listen to a few Chinese syllables to see if you can hear the difference.  The first tone is an even, high-level pitch. Listen to the examples below.

1st Tone

Now that you have heard the first tone, see if you can recognize it.

Listening Quiz 1

Listen carefully to the audio below and type in the number 1 if you hear the first tone, and the letter N if what you hear is not first tone.

The second tone moves from a low pitch to a high pitch.  Listen to the examples below, paying careful attention to distinguish first and second tones.

1st Tone2nd Tone

Now that you have heard the first and seconds tones, let’s see if you can recognize and distinguish them.

Listening Quiz 2

Listen carefully to the audio below and type in the number 1 if you hear the first tone, the number 2 if you hear the second tone, and the letter N if what you hear is neither first nor second tone.

The third tone falls slightly and then rises in pitch. Listen to the examples below, paying careful attention to the differences between the three tones.

1st Tone2nd Tone3rd Tone

Listening Quiz 3

Listen carefully to the audio below and type in the number of the tone (1, 2, 3) that you hear.  Type the letter N if what you hear is not first, second, or third tone.

The 4th tone starts high and falls all the way through. Listen to the examples below, paying careful attention to the differences between the four tones.

1st Tone2nd Tone3rd Tone4th Tone

Listening Quiz 4

Listen carefully to the audio below and type in the number of the tone (1, 2, 3, 4) that you hear.  Type the letter N if what you hear is not first, second, third or fourth tone.

In addition to the four tones, some syllables are pronounced short and light. This fifth tone is the “neutral tone” and is represented by the absence of a tone marking.  Listen to the examples below:

The first syllables of these words have a specified tone.  The high falling fourth tone is used for and the high level first tone is used for mā. The second syllables of each of these words take the neutral tone and have a lower pitch that is shorter in length.

Here is a complete table of all tones at once.  Work your way across each row in the table and compare how the pronunciation changes depending on the tone.

1st Tone2nd Tone3rd Tone4th ToneNeutral Tone

So how would you describe the tones in Chinese? Read the descriptions below and then go back and listen again.

  • the first tone is a even, high-level pitch
  •  the second tone moves from a low pitch to a high pitch
  • the third tone falls slightly and then rises in pitch
  • the fourth tone starts as a high pitch and falls sharply to a low pitch
  • the neutral tone is pronounced short and light (and is represented by the absence of a tone mark)

Do the descriptions make sense?  You may have noticed above that the first four tones have little symbols (called tone marks or diacritics) written above the vowels.  This provides a visual cue to help identify the tone contours described above. So if you see the pinyin you know that the a has a rising tone just like the mark itself.  This chart may also help to visualize the difference in the tones.

Tone chart graphic depicting the four tones of Mandarin Chinese.

Note that the fifth (neutral) tone is represented by the absence of a tone mark … and is thus not represented in the graphic above.

Congratulations!  You have now seen all five Chinese tones and had some practice identifying them. Keep in mind that when Chinese syllables are combined to create words, those syllables may also have different tones.  For instance, the word for father (bà-ba) uses the fourth (falling) tone for the first syllable and the fifth (neutral) tone for the second syllable.  The word for mother (mā-ma), by contrast, uses the first (even) tone for the first syllable the fifth (neutral) tone for the second syllable.