When you first start studying Chinese, you are introduced to Mandarin’s four main tones. You are invariably shown some variation of the chart on the right. You may have wondered where these lines came from. Are they just some artist’s conception of how the tones sound that everyone ended up agreeing on? No, actually, they’re tone contours, the result of linguistic research into the pitch contour of the various tones of Mandarin Chinese.
At this point, your average language student is going, “oh, right, pitch contour. Linguisticky mumbo jumbo. Whatever.” He then decides to accept the chart, no matter how helpful or useless he happens to find it, and move on. The reality, however, is that pitch contour is incredibly easy to see, thanks to a piece of free linguistic software called Praat. I’m going to show you how to do this yourself in a few easy steps so that you can stop accepting this “tone contour” stuff on faith alone.
Using Praat to See the Tones of Mandarin Chinese
Download Praat. It works on Windows, Mac, Linux, and all kinds of platforms. Very geek friendly.
Open Praat. The current version is 5.0.04, so that’s the one I’ll be using in all my screenshots. When you open Praat, you see two windows like this:
OK, perhaps not the most user-friendly interface in the world, but don’t worry. It’s not hard.
You see two Praat windows open. We’re just going to ignore that one on the right, because we’re not going to use it. In the left window, click on “Read” in the top menu, then select “Read from file…”.
From here you can open various sound files, such as .WAV files or even .MP3 files. To keep things simple, though, I want to open a file which contains only one spoken Mandarin syllable. For this, I can turn to my Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills. In the downloadable file, there’s a directory called “1-Char Adj” which has several monosyllabic word examples for each of Mandarin’s four main tones. (Because the tone drills are freely available for download, you can reproduce this exact example, if you wish.)
I choose the fourth-tone word “dà” (meaning “big”) and open it. It appears in the window:
Now “Sound da4” should be highlighted in blue. If it isn’t, click on it. Select “Edit” from the menu at the right:
(OK, now I’m taking this really slow for those of you that might be intimidated by a piece of “linguistic software,” but I should point out that all we’ve done so far, really, is (1) open Praaat, (2) open an audio file, (3) click on edit.)
This will bring up a new window that looks like this:
OK, now we see two boxes. The one on the top is a waveform. The one on the bottom is a spectrogram, which is also where the pitch contour will be displayed. The pitch contour is the one we’re interested in.
Why is it all scrunched up on the left, though? That’s because the entire file is displayed in the window, and with the exception of the very beginning, most of the file is silence. So let’s zoom in on what we’re interested in. Click and drag in the window to select the blackish parts on the left. They should be highlighted in pink. Now turn your attention to the four little buttons in the bottom left corner of the window labeled “all,” “in,” “out,” and “sel.” These are actually zoom options, which stand for “show all,” “zoom in,” “zoom out,” and “zoom in on selection.” So click on “sel” now. You may want to resize the window at this point to make it more square. You should see something like this:
Now the pitch contour should be quite obvious, a blue line. (The ghostly grayish background is the spectogram. We won’t be paying much attention to it, but we’ll appreciate it making the image look cooler).
Are you surprised? There’s a funny break in it, but you can clearly see the falling pitch contour that we would expect for the fourth tone word “dà.”
That’s it! You can repeat this method for as many words as you want to. You can examine the pitch contours of native speakers’ speech, and you can even record yourself and look at the pitch contour of your own speech.
On that note, though, I had better point a few other things out.
First, let’s look at the pitch contours of all four Mandarin tones. From now on we’ll be ignoring the waveform in the top box in both my explanations and screenshots, and I’ll add pinyin to the graphics to make the sounds easier to identify. Here’s a sampling (again, taken from my tone drills):
Many of you are thinking, wow, they really do look like the chart! But then the critics speak up: why isn’t first tone totally level? It kind of has an arc to it. Shouldn’t third tone rise more at the end? And what is with that break in fourth tone?
Well, the truth is that the chart I opened with is an idealized version of the tone contours. The real thing is actually quite a bit messier. To illustrate my point further, I’ll give you the pitch contours of some disyllabic Mandarin chunks:
So… why the dip in second tone “bú” of “bú cuò”? Why don’t the second tones “liú” and “xíng” rise to the same height, if they’re both second tones? In “jiǎohuá” why doesn’t the third tone rise more and why does the second tone seem to dip? Is there a problem with the source data?
No, there isn’t a problem with the source data. Theoretically, you should be able to re-record the words again and again until the pitch contours look how you want them to. But if you listen to the audio data we used, it sounds fine. So what gives?
My point is not to confuse you. There are answers to all these questions. But when you get down to the pitch contour of individual words spoken by individual people, the situation is, in reality, incredibly complex, and a nice little tone diagram doesn’t even begin to explain it all.
So what are you supposed to take away from all this? Well, first, I hope you did see that in general, the tones of Mandarin do follow the trends depicted in the basic tone diagram. I’m a visual learner, and I really struggled with the tones, so I feel like it helped me to be able to connect the audio data with a visual representation somehow. And it’s a whole lot easier to do than I first suspected.
Second, I hope you understand that if you’re struggling with tones, you really shouldn’t beat yourself up over it. The reality of tones in action is incredibly complex, and the basic tone chart is a gross oversimplification. The good news is that your brain is already fully equipped to figure out the real deal, and the basic tone chart is the only starting point you really need.
Lastly, If you thought this was going to be some kind of method which allows you to mimic the tones of native speakers through visual pitch contour comparisons, I’m sorry to tell you that I think that’s a very bad idea. Pitch contours “in the wild” aren’t consistent enough for that. It’s the kind of idea that might appeal to a programmer or a perfectionist, but in reality, that kind of practice isn’t likely to help you communicate better in Chinese.