Being a musician has made it both easy and difficult to learn the different tones in Chinese. There are four main tones: really high, middle to high, middle-low-middle, high to low. The reason why I say it’s easy is because I can mimic pitches.. for instance, when I hear the teacher say something, I hear the solfège (actual pitches) and when repeating her it makes it extremely easy.
Example: Teacher: ba [really high]= G4
Repeating her is so easy since I have pitch. Basically, I hear something, my brain automatically knows what note and which register it is (as long as the instrument is in tune or as long as it’s a voice).
Here comes the problem though… The CD in the book she gave me has two voices on it. A male and a female. The male’s pitches are clearly different from the woman. Obviously, men have a different vocal range. But the woman who is speaking on it has different pitches than my teacher. The recordings, which help me with pronouncing the actual pinyin, doesn’t help with the tones.
Example: CD lady: ba [ready high]=Ab4 When I read along with the CD, I was saying the high pitch according to what my teacher’s pitches were. When I do the highest tone, it was a G4 for me while the lady reading had her high tone at Ab4. The pitches are a half step apart and it was giving me a headache! I switched to the CD’s pitches of Ab4 but my brain was using the original G4. Of course the other tones don’t really have actual pitches but more the inflection of your voice, so it’s easier. But that first tone (really high) is killing me. My mouth is saying Ab4 at the same time my brain is saying G4.
I’ve been really listening to people when they speak and when they say things in that high tone, I’ve noticed that everyone has a different pitch even for the same word. It varies from person to person.
I wonder how other musicians with perfect pitch have this problem with tonal languages. I remember around 2005, I had the biggest headache of my life… Two songs were playing at the same time: Beethoven’s 3rd symphony and a pop song. The two songs weren’t loud but I could hear them, it drove me crazy mainly because they were in different keys, different tempos and their clash made my brain hurt. The headache was so bad that I ended up crying and I threw up. That is the one and only time that music literally made me physically sick.
English, Korean and most of the European languages I am familiar is more speech/talk than pitches. I find languages and music so interesting. Cantonese has tones too but I don’t know any of them, I just repeat everything I learn to the best of my ability. If you say the wrong tone, you could be cursing and completely saying a different word. I’ll never forget when I couldn’t remember which word was diarrhea or hungry. Those two words are similar but different tones… and I’ve embarrassed myself plenty of times by mixing up the two words.
I had my second intensive course yesterday (2 hours) and my teacher said her high tone at the exact same pitch as last time (G4). I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Chinese musicians have perfect pitch. I forced myself to not really pay attention to the pitch but the general tone and it was ok. I still say my high tone at the same pitch every time and I can hear by the way people talk what their own tones are. During my second lesson we were already having some basic conversations, even more words to write and more vocabulary. I do have to say, intensive is really intense! There’s a lot to learn and I have 4 hours a week that I’m learning Chinese. I feel like I’m in college all over again.
I have my third course on Friday. I hope I can memorize all of this, she gave me more than double the amount of things to have ready since my first lesson. Learning languages is so fun, I really wish I could just speak fluently already but hopefully by the end of the year I’ll be able to speak at least half the amount that I can with Korean. *crossing my fingers*