Are Chinese lyrics difficult for native speakers to understand?

I am wondering if it's hard for native speakers to understand the music in Chinese, if they're not given lyrics.

It came to my mind because, since Chinese words have different meanings depending on tones, when sung, the tones kind of disappear. Does that make it harder for those who listen to some song that they've never heard to understand meanings?

The music videos in Chinese almost always have Chinese subtitles. I am sure that has to do with the fact that it's hard to understand the lyrics without them?
  • BODYholic

    Senior Member
    Chinese Cantonese
    I think it largely depends on the diction of a singer. When it coupled with the context (I mean every song has a story to tell), we usually have no problem understanding them. Of course, there are cases where some words seem a little fuzzy to tell.

    As pointed out from the above, some singers do have poor diction which they called styles. These This limits how we comprehend songs, any songs for that matter. Example, 周董 murmurs when he sings, and the same can be said of The Cranberries. For the record, I do like the way the vocalist slurs. ;)

    The Chinese subtitles are meant for people to sing along. We have to admit not everyone remembers every single word in a lyric.
    Last edited:


    Senior Member
    It's quite common for Chinese that they can't get the Chinese lyrics right. We have hundreds of jokes of mishearings.
    The major reason is, obviously, we have four tones which are messed up in songs.
    Besides, the lyrics are written in different styles. Many of them are like poems, which have rich meanings but hard to get it without reading the texts.


    New Member
    American English and Mandarin Chinese
    I sometimes look up the lyrics just to see what it really is, but if you listen to a certain song many times, you sort of get to the point where you understand the lyrics, even if the tones are confusing. And yes, BODYholic gave a great example, Jay murmurs a lot when he sings, but I still love his music!


    Senior Member
    Ça dépend des styles des chansons et des chanteurs.
    Et je peux apprendre la plupart des chansons chinois sans sous-titres, au moins les sens générals. car desquels la plupart sont assez claire. ; )

    nick zhang

    New Member
    It's not difficult for native speakers to understand Chinese songs at all, if they're not given lyrics. Tones do not disappear when sung.
    See Marjorie K.M. Chan's TONE AND MELODY IN CANTONESE :)
    "In modern Mandarin songs, the melodies dominate, so that the original tones on the lyrics seem to be completely ignored. In Cantonese songs, however, the melodies typically take the lexical tones into consideration and attempt to preserve their pitch contours and relative pitch heights."
    That is a very interesting article indeed.

    But I have another language-related question: Is so-called "cantopop" ever heard, popular in the rest of China? What about "mandopop"'s popularity in Hong Kong? Do Cantonese singers release albums in Mandarin?


    Senior Member
    English (UK)
    To a fair degree, I'd say "yes" to all of your 3 questions. I hope someone who knows more about this will elaborate.


    Senior Member
    That is a very interesting article indeed.

    But I have another language-related question: Is so-called "cantopop" ever heard, popular in the rest of China?
    They are popular in Canton (Guangdong province), and provinces near by.
    For farther provinces, people may know the popstars' names but not quite familiar with their songs. Taiwanese Mandarin songs are usually much more familiar to them.
    That's why some songs release both Cantonese version and Mandarin version, with a same malody but different lyrics.

    What about "mandopop"'s popularity in Hong Kong?
    Mostly they are Taiwanese pop songs. Also quite popular in Hong Kong. But Mandarin speakers outside Hong Kong are more familiar with them, of course.

    Do Cantonese singers release albums in Mandarin?
    Most major singers do.


    New Member
    Mandarin - Taiwan
    To be honest, I think listening to any song in a foreign language is hard. Even if it's a language without tones like English or French, it still takes a lot for "learners" to fully understand songs as many words are pronounced in a different way unknowingly by native speakers when singing. As a native Chinese speaker from Taiwan, I can say I have no problems understanding most Chinese songs without looking at the lyrics except for those from particular singers (e.g. Jay Chou). For most Chinese songs, I can still understand almost every single word as native Chinese speakers have the ability to guess meaning depending on contexts and pronunciations with tones totally removed. (Except when there are sometimes less commonly-used words, we would have difficulties guessing right.) But I can sort of imagine how hard it would be for Chinese learners.


    New Member
    In songs, operas, I think it's not in Chinese , but also in German or Italian, the pronunciation of words in songs usually changed due to the tone, so for a better and thorough understanding, you are advised to read the lyrics/scenario/play/ again and again.
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