The 4 Mandarin Chinese Tones Basics

Most of the Chinese words consist of one or two syllables (about 80%),  and the rest of three, rarely four syllables.
Each syllable consists of a initialfinal and tonal component. The latter is what makes Chinese language  a tonal language. It simply means that a tone of the particular syllable also determines its meaning.

Mandarin conversations and podcasts

In this tutorial I want to discuss tones and tone changes in detail to save you time chasing the scattered information all over the web. I designed this tutorial to take you from zero knowledge about tones to confidently recognize and pronounce tones and their changes.

The importance of Mandarin tones
What are Mandarin tones?
The Four Mandarin tones + a toneless tone

Tones in spoken Mandarin
The rules of Mandarin tone changes
Do I need to have a musical ear to master the tones?


 

The importance of Mandarin tones

Learning Chinese tones is necessary to develop speaking and listening skills. There is no way to understand spoken Mandarin without mastering the tones.

No matter which Mandarin course you’re taking or intend to take, understanding the concept of Mandarin tones, being able to produce them and tell them apart, will be one of the first things you learn as a beginner Mandarin student.

Let me restate the above in two words: TONES MATTER.
In fact, they are crucial in every aspect of spoken Mandarin. There is no way around this fact.
If you don’t know the tones, it is like not knowing the difference between the words »bat« and »bet«, »hit « and »heat«, »pill« and »peel«, »ship« and »sheep«,  etc.

Imagine asking: »Is this your shit?« instead of »Is this your sheet?« You would get some very confused looks.

And that is why mastering the tones as an independent learner should be your priority.
In contrast to English language, every Mandarin syllable has a tonal component that primarily determines it’s meaning.
At first, it might seem difficult to master the tones. However, if you practice and get used to the rhythm and sound of Chinese language you are on a fast track to making the tones become second nature to you.

Study this page and by the time you are finished reading it, you should have a solid grasp of Mandarin tones. Then, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.


 

What are Mandarin tones?

 

The tones in Mandarin are characteristic changes in pitch rather than tones in musical sense.

A tone in music is defined by its frequency (speed of air vibration) whereas a tone in Mandarin resembles a pitch contour/change.
Simply put, your voice goes up or down, stays at the same level (pitch) or goes down and up again.

Let’s have a look at the example:

Try saying: »Yes!«

Now try »Yes?«

Did you notice your voice falling in the first instance and rising in the second example?

English uses rising and falling pitch to express something as a declarative or interrogative sentence.

Tones in Mandarin follow exactly the same principle in terms of pronunciation. However, the important difference is, they determine the very meaning of a syllable/word.

It is safe to say that an English speaker is already familiar with the pitch changes necessary to produce tones. What you need to do is to consciously apply them to Mandarin.


 

The Four Mandarin tones + a toneless

 

Look at the graphic below. It represents tones within one’s relative vocal range.

Mandarin tones graphic representation

Different people have different vocal ranges depending on age, sex, and individual characteristics.
The question here is how high do YOU need to go with the first tone or in contrast, how low with the third tone. I have written a separate article about how to find your comfortable voice range.

In short, just try to say: »What?« Listen and note the highest level your voice reaches. This should be the high point of your comfortable vocal range.

Now, try to say »Hmm« is if you would try clear up your throat. You should feel the sound being produced in the back of your mouth cavity, almost in the throat. This should give you an idea of the low point of your comfortable vocal range.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the tones.


 

First Mandarin Tone – High-Level Pitch

 

pinyin tone diacritic (e.g. bā, bāi, gōng, nū, xiāng)First Mandarin tone diacritic

 

When you train your listening skills, the first tone is the one that will somehow stick out. Mandarin speakers tend to extend the syllables with the first tone for a moment to subtly emphasize the long uniform high pitch.

The first tone is the one that most resembles a tone in a musical sense. It’s a leveled pitch at the upper limit of one’s comfortable voice range. Chinese syllables pronounced with the first tone tend to be slightly longer in duration.

It sounds as if a speakers voice glides on top of its vocal range for a split second.
Listen the examples and repeat what you hear:

Practice hint: Move your head from left to right when you pronounce syllables with the first tone.

Now, listen to the examples below and try to repeat them at your upper limit

Pinyin shī tiān
Audio  
 

Second Mandarin Tone – Rising Pitch

 

Second Mandarin tone diacriticpinyin tone diacritic (e.g. géi, fáng, zóng, háo, xiáng)

 

The second tone is a rising tone. You produce this tone by rising your voice from the middle of your vocal range to its high point.
Imagine asking »What?« in English. The second tone follows the exact same vocal pattern. You start at the middle of your vocal range and raise the voice towards the high point.
Try to pronounce these nouns as if you where inquiring about them: »Phone?« »Toy?« »Fish?« »Cat?«
Do you notice what is happening with your voice? Yes, that’s right. It goes up. This is what happens when you pronounce Mandarin syllables with the second tone.
Listen to the examples and try to emulate the sounds that you hear with your voice:

Practice Hint: Move your chin up when you practice the second tone.

Pinyin shí tián
Audio   

 


 

Third Mandarin Tone – Falling-Rising Pitch

 

Third Mandarin tone diacriticpinyin tone diacritic: (e.g. gěi, fǎng, zǒng, hǎo, xiǎng)

The characteristic feature of the third tones is the lowering of one’s voice. Your voice goes down to the low point of your voice range and then raises again.
The falling and rising are very obvious when you hear native speakers pronounce syllables with the third tone in isolation. However, within a sentence, a syllable pronounced with a third tone seems just to stay at the low vocal point. Rising is not obvious or can not be perceived at all.

So, the takeaway for the third tone is to pay attention to the lowering of speaker’s voice.

Practice hint: Move your chin down and then up again when you practice the third tone.

Listen to the examples and test your voice at the lower vocal range to get used to the sound.

Pinyin shǐ tiǎn
Audio  
 
 
 
 

 

Fourth Mandarin Tone Falling pitch

 

Fourth Mandarin tone diacriticpinyin tone diacritic: (e.g. gèi, mào, gòng, hào, xiàng)

 

The voice of a speaker literally falls from high to low point when pronouncing the fourth Mandarin tone.
The pronunciation has a somehow forceful and fast feel to it.
Imagine saying »No!«with the determination and disagreement . Try the same with phrases like »Sure!«, »Yes!«, »Clear!« you’ll get very close to the mark of characteristic pitch change of a fourth the tone.

For better understanding listen to these examples:

Practice hint: Move your head down as if you were nodding when you practice the fourth tone.

Pinyin shì tiàn
Audio  
 
 
 
 

 

Neutral or toneless tone

 

Is there a fifth Mandarin tone? Some people consider a neutral tone as the fifth tone. I don’t want to start a lengthy linguistic discussion here.

However, you should be aware that certain syllables/characters are pronounced in a particular way that doesn’t fall in any of the above four categories.

The reason being that the neutral tone sounds differently in addition to characters/syllables preceding it. Sounds confusing but bear with me.

The simple way to wrap your head around it is to just imagine that neutral tone doesn’t carry any tonal component. It is pronounced without any pitch contour. After all, neutral tone is always used on unstressed syllables.

To get an idea how to pronounced the neutral tone imagine a guitar string. If you lift the string and release it, it produces a tone as well as overtones/harmonics as it returns to its original position. A neutral tone in Mandarin acts like a counter balance to the tone preceding it as your voice returns to your middle vocal range. So, by analogy when you voice the first tone, the neutral tone will counter balance it by going low. If you voice the third tone, the neutral tone will counter balance it by going high.

Let’s have a look at the graphic representing the four Mandarin tones in relation to the neutral tone.

Neutral or toneless Mandarin tone

So, to voice a neutral tone, just remember to move your voice towards the middle position of your vocal range. After some practice you’ll quickly figure which syllables are voiced in the neutral tone.
This is a more comprehensive overview of the usage of neutral tone in Mandarin.


 

Mandarin tones in spoken Mandarin

 

The above characteristics of tones seem simple enough. If you practice the pronunciation of syllables in isolation you should quickly grasp the differences within your own voice.

Things start to get more complicated when you start to learn Mandarin words and phrases. There are certain changes that occur when tones are pronounced one after another. I will get to these rules in a minute.

But before we get to that let’s address the four tones from a more practical stand point. Particularly the third tone.

When you start listening the natives speak, you’ll notice that all the tones somehow blend into a indiscernible »rising falling syllable noise«. And you’ll be totally confused which is normal. With practice, you’ll slowly but surely start to recognize the differences between tones by recognizing words and phrases you are familiar with.

That is, in short:

-1.tone high-level flat tone
-2.tone rising tone
-3.tone low level tone (notice that the rising part is missing)
-4.tone fast falling tone

Let’s have a look at the tone diagram once more with this correction that more accurately reflects the reality:

 Mandarinetones02

Notice the change of the third tone into half-third tone; third tone without the rising part.


 

The rules of Mandarin tone changes

 

To avoid confusion, you should be aware that certain tone changes apply when syllables are pronounced together in a sequence (words/sentences) compared to individual syllables.

Before we delve into details of tone changes, let me say that you don’t need to memorize these rules. The aim of this part of the tutorial is to make you aware that some tones undergo certain changes. Don’t obsess too much about it.

In practice, when you study a certain word or phrase, you’ll see that a diacritic on pinyin is missing or is changed from the one that you’ve learned when studying individual characters. In such instances, you might ask yourself if it’s a typo? Well, if the material you’re studying was carefully edited, it is most likely that pinyin transliteration is correct.

In that case, you might assume this is because of the tone change rules. And, you’d be right. When you encounter such words or phrases, re-read this section and see if the tones are changed according to the rules presented below.

You’ll soon discover that these changes come rather naturally because of the way voice “flows” up and down in Mandarin. So, to spare you the trouble of figuring out why a certain syllable is pronounced differently depending on its neighbors, here are the basic rules of tone changes:

Changes of the third tone

Let’s start with the third tone because most changes happen on this particular pitch contour (i.e. falling-rising).

As we’ve already learned, a syllable with the third tone is pronounced with its whole pitch contour only when it stands individually.

Third tone followed by another third tone (3-3 → 2-3)

When followed by another third tone, the first third tone changes to the second tone.

Examples:

Ni3hao3 Ni2hao3

Three third tones in succession (3-3-3 → 2-2-3 or 3-3-3→N-2-3)

  • Structure: 1+1+1 – Three individual one-syllable words
    Examples:
  • Structure: 2+1 – Two-syllable word + one syllable word
    Examples:
  • Structure: 1+2 – One syllable word + two-syllable word
    Examples:

 Third tone followed by first, second, fourth or neutral tone (3-1,2,4,N →3/2-1,2,4,N)

When followed by first, second, fourth or neutral tone, the third tone changes to half-third tone. This one is rather subtle.

You omit the pronunciation of the rising part of the third tone. Your voice just stays low before pronouncing the next syllable with either first, second, fourth or neutral tone.

Changes of the second tone

If the second tone is preceded by a first or second tone and followed by any other tone, it changes to the first tone.

Examples:

Tone changes of specific words

 

bu不

bu shi
bu yao
budui

yi一

The 4 Mandarin Chinese Tones Basics

Most of the Chinese words consist of one or two syllables (about 80%),  and the rest of three, rarely four syllables.
Each syllable consists of a initialfinal and tonal component. The latter is what makes Chinese language  a tonal language. It simply means that a tone of the particular syllable also determines its meaning.

In this tutorial we are going to discuss tones and tone changes in detail to save you time chasing the scattered information all over the web. We designed this tutorial to take you from zero knowledge about tones to confidently recognize and pronounce tones and their changes.


The importance of Mandarin tones

Learning Chinese tones is necessary to develop speaking and listening skills. There is no way to understand spoken Mandarin without mastering the tones.

No matter which Mandarin course you’re taking or intend to take, understanding the concept of Mandarin tones, being able to produce them and tell them apart, will be one of the first things you learn as a beginner Mandarin student.

Let me restate the above in two words: TONES MATTER.
In fact, they are crucial in every aspect of spoken Mandarin. There is no way around this fact.
If you don't know the tones, it is like not knowing the difference between the words »bat« and »bet«, »hit « and »heat«, »pill« and »peel«, »ship« and »sheep«,  etc.

Imagine asking: »Is this your shit?« instead of »Is this your sheet?« You would get some very confused looks.

And that is why mastering the tones as an independent learner should be your priority.
In contrast to English language, every Mandarin syllable has a tonal component that primarily determines it's meaning.
At first, it might seem difficult to master the tones. However, if you practice and get used to the rhythm and sound of Chinese language you are on a fast track to making the tones become second nature to you.

Study this page and by the time you are finished reading it, you should have a solid grasp of Mandarin tones. Then, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.

What are Mandarin tones?

The tones in Mandarin are characteristic changes in pitch rather than tones in musical sense.

A tone in music is defined by its frequency (speed of air vibration) whereas a tone in Mandarin resembles a pitch contour/change.
Simply put, your voice goes up or down, stays at the same level (pitch) or goes down and up again.

Let's have a look at the example:

Try saying: »Yes!«

Now try »Yes?«

Did you notice your voice falling in the first instance and rising in the second example?

English uses rising and falling pitch to express something as a declarative or interrogative sentence.

Tones in Mandarin follow exactly the same principle in terms of pronunciation. However, the important difference is, they determine the very meaning of a syllable/word.

It is safe to say that an English speaker is already familiar with the pitch changes necessary to produce tones. What you need to do is to consciously apply them to Mandarin.