Tone Deafness and Whispering Doesn't Stop Tones

I recently read a blog entry in which the author mused that life must be a living hell for tone deaf Chinese. If the language is tonal, and tones play a crucial role in differentiating words, then tone deaf Chinese can’t understand what other people are saying, right? Right?

Well, no. It’s not that simple. Singing and speaking a tonal language are not the same thing. However often you might hear people speak of “the music of the language,” the two are not the same. I’m lucky this is the case, because I’m a terrible singer.

A USA Today article explains:

> How can [a tone deaf Chinese person] tell the difference in speech between, say, [] and [] with only their distinct tones to distinguish the meanings?

> Easily enough, it turns out. Mostly, he uses context and other language clues. Homonyms in Chinese (or English: “I’m a little hoarse”), rarely confuse a listener — when heard in context. But also, it’s easier to distinguish varying tones. Moreover, the tones we use in languages are coarse discriminators that even a disabled person can manage. To convey meaning differences, speech requires tone distinctions three to six times greater than melodies do for musical nuances.

(Pinyin News gets a little more analytical about it, if you’re interested.)

I was not surprised by this. I remember a while back when I first started studying Chinese, my dad posed this question to me: if Chinese is tonal, then can the Chinese understand each other when they whisper? This is actually a very good question. Whispers can’t carry tones. Trying “whispering to a melody.” You can’t.

This is because whispers lack what is called “fundamental frequency” (a physics term represented by f0), which is the basis for pitch. And that’s the aspect of normal spoken speech which carries tones.

So it would seem that my dad was dead on: it is physically impossible for whispers to carry tones. The thing is, you can whisper in Chinese, and it is understandable. But how does this work?

It turns out that when people whisper a tonal language such as Chinese, they naturally compensate for the lack of tones. How? According to one study:

> 1. the laryngeal sphincter mechanism is found to be a principal contributing physiological maneuver in the production of whisper, emphasizing the vertical rather than the horizontal component of the laryngeal source;

> 2. two special behavioral maneuvers are also used in whisper: male speakers tend to lengthen vocalic duration and female speakers tend to exaggerate the amplitude contours of Tone 3 and Tone 4;

> 3. these two special behavioral maneuvers and two temporal envelope parameters contribute to tone recognition in whisper, but the phonetic context is shown to be a distraction;

> 4. the environments of the target tones cause perceptual differneces, and the ranking of these environments in order of increasing degree of difficulty is: isolation, sentence-final, sentence-medial and sentence-final;

> 5. the ranking of the four tones in isolation, in order of increasing degree of perceptual difficulty is: Tone 3, Tone 4, Tone 1 and Tone 2.

> Source: Tones in Whispered Chinese: Articulatory Features and Perceptual Cues by Man Gao

Whew! OK, the basic idea is this: when people whisper, they naturally overcome the limitation of the medium by compensating in other ways. And they do it without even trying! I can even do it, and I’m pretty sure I never studied whispering tones. This is pretty cool.

So there you go, dad… it only took me about 6 years to find the answer to your question.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Is a tone in music the same thing as a tone in speech? Of course we use the same words for these things, but do they really correspond? I’m just sort of curious, not sure either way. Though if they don’t, we’d have a lexical equivalent of mishearing “hoarse”.

  2. CaptainEO Says: August 22, 2006 at 12:44 pm

    I’m no linguist, but I’ve come to think that tones are just as much about syllable stress as they are about pitch. Especially in fast (or whispered) speech, the pitches might disappear, but the contours of syllable stress imposed by the tones remain.

    (I realized that in multisyllabic English words, you have to remember which syllable to stress, whereas in Chinese I believe the stress is completely dictated by the tones)

  3. Here’s an excerpt from an article that’s pretty well informed on the musical side of things… if you can get by its saying that “ma” in a lower tone means hemp.” It looks like Chinese music students really do tend to have a better grasp on tones when it comes to music, too.

    Deutsch tested this hypothesis by playing 36 notes to a group of 88 Mandarin-speaking Chinese music students and 155 English-speaking American music students. The students wrote down the name of each note after hearing it played. The participants also indicated at what age they began their musical training.

    Of the Chinese music students, 63 percent named the notes correctly–within a half step–at least 85 percent of the time. Of the American students, only 7 percent met the criteria for absolute pitch.

  4. The opposite of wispering is shouting. Another six years to explain why when I shout ‘fuwuyuen’ or ‘mai dan’ it seems my tones fall to pieces? I noticed that kids love to shout and I’ve been making guesses that it helps them ‘lock’ in their tones and the language. I would like to do the same, but I think many people would run away if I started shouting.

  5. Da Xiangchang Says: August 22, 2006 at 2:36 pm

    Maybe I’m a total philistine, but I found the OTHER question on that link–“How big is the Star Trek ship?”–a lot more interesting. 😉

  6. I’m not sold. I think it is possible to produce valid tones when whispering in Chinese. In other words, I think whispers can carry tones. It just may be more difficult to perceive them.

  7. Singing and speaking a tonal language are not the same thing.

    Yup. But that raises another issue. It’s also worth mentioning the case of singing (in the literal sense). When people sing in Sinitic languages tones (as in the feature of tonal languages) can become much less apparent or even disappear altogether. Yet listeners understand the songs. I wonder if there are studies on that.

  8. I’m with Prince Roy. I spent 5 minutes to do an experiment to verify his hypothesis, and he’s right. I whispered xiao xiáo xiăo, and xiào into my computer mic, recording a .wav file and then looked at a spectral view of the file. The pitch of the loudest sound (at each given point) in the recording follows the pattern it should for each word.

    Anybody care to independently verify my results?

  9. Prince Roy and Mark,

    Wow, I’m really quite surprised that you don’t accept that tones are impossible in whispered speech. Whispered speech is defined as speech without vibration of the vocal chords, and without such vibration, tones are impossible. It really is physically impossible for whispered speech to carry tones. To deny this is to deny all scientific research been done on it (that I can find). If you can find any evidence to the contrary, then by all means, share it.

    Whispers do not carry tones; speakers whisper in such a way as to carry the same information that tones do, but in a different way.

    If you’re still not convinced, try this other research paper: Larynx movements and intonation in whispered speech. An excerpt:

    Since the larynx movements responsible for pitch changes are comparable in voiced and whispered speech, we infer that the speech motor control plans are similar, at the expense of articulatory redundancy in whispered speech. This affords an explanation for perceived pitch in whispered speech: larynx movements change the tongue position and the shape of the oral cavity, thus altering the vocal tract acoustics so that the speech signal carries information that allows listeners to infer the articulatory movements normally associated with pitch changes.

    Another quote from another source:

    …data support the notion that whispered speech relies on a motor control system different and distinct than that of voiced speech.

    More relevant links:

  10. Da Xiangchang Says: August 24, 2006 at 2:34 am

    Maybe people are mistaking murmuring with whispering and vice versa.

  11. John, is it possible that you’re confusing f0 with the concept of pitch (or tone) in general? As I understand it, amplitude contour (discussed at length, beginning on page 65 of the MA thesis you linked to) is nothing more than an integral of the sound intensity across a range of pitches. With no pitch there would be no amplitude contour, either.

    BTW, the spectral view of my sound file of me whispering Chinese words of each tone is very similar to the amplitude contour figures in that thesis paper.

  12. Mark,

    I wasn’t appealing to authority, I was appealing to scientific research. Not the same thing. Appeals to authority are not made to objective facts.

    I think this all comes down to definitions: definition of pitch, definition of tone. Surely you admit that the “tones” occurring in regular spoken speech and in whispered speech are not the same? Somehow, my definition of “tone” (as well as that of some of the quoted scholars) excludes that which occurs in whispered speech and yours does not.

    As for pitch, there are definitely different definitions, and I can see that this is coming into play. Pitch:

    • Acoustics The distinctive quality of a sound, dependent primarily on the frequency of the sound waves produced by its source.
    • Music The relative position of a tone within a range of musical sounds, as determined by this quality.
    • Music Any of various standards for this quality associating each tone with a particular frequency.

    I admit I was using a more musical definition of pitch at times, which is confusing. But if you’re using the most general definition of pitch which every sound has, I don’t see that as very helpful. Surely you’re not claiming that whispered speech is exactly the same as normal spoken speech?

    Rather than continue to argue semantics, let me ask you this: is it possible for you to sing in a whisper a song that is unfamiliar to me, and have me learn the melody?

  13. Your mention of fundamental frequency immediately made me think of sound in terms of physics. Just to clarify, what I meant when I said pitch was (#29): the degree of height or depth of a tone or of sound, depending upon the relative rapidity of the vibrations by which it is produced.

    No, of course whispered speech is quite a bit different than voiced speech. The tone of a whisper and the perceived tone of a whisper can be controlled to some degree, but it’s obviously a very poor substitute for using vocal chords, which were designed for the task. There are some pretty hard physical limits to how much one can shift the perceived pitch of a whisper. Even worse, doing so affects the volume of the sound you make, and whispering’s bad for your voice, too.

    It may be possible to whisper an unfamiliar “melody” to someone as long as the range between the highest and lowest notes in the melody is only a couple of half steps. It would take somebody with a pretty good ear to do it. Just as with speech, recognition would be much less reliable than usual.

  14. I think enough is enough with all this whispering.

  15. My two cents as an engineering/music double major:
    Yes, whispers do have a pitch. You can do a simple test of this fact. Try whistling. Next try whisper-whistling, that is, try to whistle without using your tongue that much. Now try to do a simple melody like row row row your boat while doing that. As I sit here right now I can do it, and I can hear the melody and the words and I’m not using my vocal chords. Changing the shape of your mouth and the amount of air flow is enough to change the pitch significantly. I can manage over a two octave difference in the pitch of my whispers. Of course, all of the physics that Mark brought up is correct too.

  16. Can Chinese read lips?

  17. to Mark:

    Whispers don’t actually carry tones according to some comment left on another website. However, speakers of tonal languages compensate for this loss by varying the syllable stress and syllable length, because in tonal languages, these two things are dictated by the tones. I would like to see if the “double major” is correct by testing his assertion that whispers have tones. I don’t think they do. I will use a tuner to see if I could produce a tone with my whisper. I don’t mean to brag but not only am I a music major myself, but I have got a very good sense of pitch. But if you’re right my friend well, you’re right.

  18. interestingly, i must concede. i was actually able to produce a tone by “whistle whispering.” But then again, when normally whispering, sofly whispering, no tone was produced. Sorry if I was being rude by talking about your major or what not.

  19. Phoebe Says: May 2, 2007 at 6:34 pm

    I always thought tone-deafness was just a term used by people who couldn’t sing. I didn’t think anyone actually was tone-deaf. Does it exist? There’s not much information on it, especially how many people are actually affected.

  20. Whispers dont carry tone or pitch. Its really simple actually and a lot of the above comments are based on some fundamental confusions. Pitch is the subjective measure of frequency. Frequency is the number of cycles a periodic sound wave completes in a given amount of time. Voiced vowels have a frequency because the vocal chords vibrate periodically and create a periodic sound wave. Whispered vowels are aperiodic, they get their sound only from the air passing through the pharynx and oral cavity. This air is turbulent and and creates sound waves that not even close to periodic.

    The comments regarding whistling and whispered vowels have to do with the vowel formants. The formants represent the transfer function applied to the sound wave as it passes through the pharynx and mouth. These are still present when one whispers, and are also present when we whistle, but neither of these two things have a fundamental frequency. When people hear a complex tones thats missing the fundamental, the brain kind of deduces the fundamental using the other information provided in the signal. This may lead to the impression of pitch.

  21. sorry, whistling does have a fundamental.

  22. Christian Says: April 12, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    This article confirms some of the suspicions I’ve had over the last year 🙂
    While my Hong Kong friend at school does use pitches often, sometimes they seem to be drown out or just don’t appear, especially when talking quietly in Math class, and rather than pitches he changes the sound of the vowels to compensate so (for example) ‘hao’ in a low pitch could become ‘hou’.

    Anyway great article I was looking for something like this 🙂

  23. […] Tone Deafness and Whispering Doesn’t Stop Tones, Sinosplice, August 22, 2006 […]

  24. I still don't get it Says: April 4, 2011 at 2:05 am

    So in conclusion the Putonghua actually uses a mix of tones, pitch, and accent?

  25. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  26. I’d love to have a link to a sound file of Chinese people whispering so I can hear for myself. Does anybody have one?


  27. First, I was GOING to write that Chinese people don’t whisper.
    Because they don’t, here in the Mainland.

    Then I was going to write that it’s impossible to speak Chinese without yelling (as you’ve proven here), because the tones require a certain minimum volume to distinguish from high to low, low to high, etc.

    But then I remembered a trip back to China a few years ago…Air Canada Vancouver to Shanghai..

    As I plopped down in my seat behind a couple middle aged Chinese women, I was started to hear something unheard of in the PRC: a couple Chinese whispering on the plane. What was this? Surely a sign of Economic development… two people… talking… not shouting. But they were speaking Mandarin, so… not Hong Kongese.

    What gives?

    Then I heard them speak English (!) to the stewardess (she was stunned). Right. Canadian Chinese (CBC). Got it. They’d been born in Canada, and learned Chinese as a second language. You could tell where they were forced to creatively use simple language, and where they couldn’t express a certain idea, they just gave up and said something in English (as many Latin Americans do in the States–Spanglish).

    They weren’t going back to China at all…they were visiting it.

    So perhaps the screeching and shouting is just cultural. It must have been learned in China, because it wasn’t learned in Canada, and it isn’t a ‘necessary’ part of the language at all.

    So I correct myself. In the PRC no one whispers, or speaks at a normal level. They could, but they don’t.

  28. Hi my name is pris west
    Yes I am deaf. I was born deaf. Hard of hearings it can’t hear. My real name is miss. Prescilla helen west., I am deaf daughter. I know sign laugauges asl.
    Hell no I don’t undersaide manys peoples lipsreads. I don’t undersaide what is that mean?. Pris is deaf it only quzit and whiper feelings lots of moods
    Sometimes I was so lazys all days because I hate have to helps lots of to do.I hate that to shit. I am life indianapolis. Get voice tapy put in hinds than. Tell parents tell story of pris west remember when all about me. I can’t remember my real parents and familys names theys know me miss. Prescilla west. Sometimes I had so sick manys times have to take care of me and I am very poor I don’t have any moneys.

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