The 4 Tones
 | Jinbupal

The 4 Tones

Alright so now we’ve arrived at the four tones. Mandarin Chinese has 4 tones plus a neutral or unstressed tone which is often referred to as the 5th tone. When first starting out, I found it very difficult to notice the difference in the tones. I hope this post can clear things up.

When you are reading through this, I would recommend trying to think about how each of the tones sounds when said very slowly. I say this because when said slowly, it’s very easy to see how the pitch changes for each of the four tones. However, when you hear them said at normal speed, I find the four tones are much more difficult to distinguish as a beginner. Over time, you won’t need to think about how the pitch of a speaker’s voice changes, because you’re understanding of tone will eventually become ingrained such that you just know by the way a word sounds what tone it is. For this reason, I provide some tips in this article that will help indicate tone without thinking about the pitch specifically.

Okay, so how do you know which tone is used for a specific character? Tones are denoted for individual characters by accent marks over a vowel in the pinyin final. The marks attributed to each tone are shown below. Note that the neutral tone does not have any tone mark attributed to it and it is written just as the pinyin without a mark.

1 ¯ 2 ´ 3 ˇ 4 `

The shapes of these tones mark actually accurately reflect the shape of the curve for each tone’s pitch. That is, the first tone is high and flat pitch, the second is rising pitch, the third is a low falling-rising pitch, and the fourth is falling pitch. We’ll discuss this further below.

These tones can be seen on a tone chart like the one below.


As we discussed earlier, words are typically formed by pairs of characters called bigrams. For this reason, tones also come in these same pairs. It’s often recommended to practice the tones in pairs because this will help you get an idea of the flow tones provide to the language.

Now let’s break down the characteristics of each tone individually.

  • 1st tone: This tone is a high-flat pitch. Think of this tone as being at the upper level of your voice’s pitch range. It is usually pretty noticeable because you will typically let the sound ring out almost as if you were singing the syllable at a high pitch. Because of this ringing out, the 1st tone tends to sound longer than the 2nd and 4th tones. The 3rd tone also is often a bit longer in this way, but it is recognizably lower and usually bounces in comparison to the 1st tone.
  • 2nd tone: This tone is a flat-rising tone that starts around the middle of your pitch range.The best explanation I have heard is to think of the way your inflection changes in English when you are asking a question. Some good single syllable examples would be questions like “huh?”, “right?”, or “ok?” Because of this, the 2nd tone tends to sound to me a bit softer than the other three tones. By “soft”, I mean as in a “soft” vowel, rather than the opposite of loud.
  • 3rd tone: This tone is technically falling-rising tone. (I say technically because it is most often impacted by tone change rules which I will discuss in a second.) Your voice will start out already towards the lower end of your pitch range and fall to your lowest pitch before rising again. When first learning, I personally had trouble noticing the differences between this tone and the 2nd tone. If you have this problem, it is usually quite noticeable that the 3rd tone is much more drawn out and longer lasting than the second tone. You will also notice that the 3rd tone hits a very low point with the sound almost being “croaky” because the pitch is so low. When spoken, you can imagine your voice making a checkmark shape or bouncing with the part after the bounce being drawn out a bit more. You can sometimes even notice that when people speak this tone, their speech will cut out slightly at the lowest pitch before rising. This is not something they are consciously doing; it just happens as the result of hitting the lowest pitch your voice can handle. Regarding Tone Change rules: It’s worth noting that the 3rd tone more often than not either changes completely to a second tone or is pronounced as a half-third tone (半上声). The half-third tone is noticeably formed as a 2-1-1 on the chart rather than 2-1-4. For this reason, in recent years more resources are saying the third tone is a low tone rather than a falling-rising tone, because in most cases it is, despite the fact that the official pronunciation of the 3rd tone is in fact falling-rising.
  • 4th tone: This tone is a falling tone that starts toward your high range and falls quickly to a low pitch. The best explanation I have heard of this tone is that it sounds like the stress used in English for an emphatic statement, such as “No!” Try saying this slowed down to notice the change in pitch from high to low.
  • Unstressed tone (sometimes called the 5th tone): This tone is a neutral, unstressed tone which is said very light and short. This is applied to common particles like, 的 (de) or 吗 (ma), which will be discussed later. Also, this tone appears in the second character of some bigram words.

I think that tones can seem very difficult to grasp when you first start learning and there are a few reasons for this. If you have not listened to a lot of Chinese speech, it can be very difficult to recognize the tones. At the same time, if you are just getting starting and don’t know many words or characters, it’s easy to feel like you’re not gaining much value out of listening to the speech without understanding any of the content.

But there is one subject that is skipped in every single explanation of tones I have ever seen: how tones sound when they are exaggerated. If you listen to Chinese podcasts or narrative documentaries, for example, speakers will often enunciate clearly but also exaggerate tones to put more emphasis on certain words. In English, we may emphasize words by changing our stress on the word, but in Chinese, words can be emphasized by simply exaggerating one of the tones that is already a part of the word. It’s important to be aware how this sounds because (at least for me) it can seem very unusual compared to the 4 tone examples provided in most basic explanations. Once you become accustomed to hearing these, you might find that listening to content with this type of speech is even easier for practicing your listening skills specifically because of the exaggeration. As I said before, once you recognize the characteristics of different tones you can pick them out easily by how they sound without always having to actually think about how the pitch changed.

So then, let’s talk about each of the 4 tones specifically when exaggerated:

  • 1st tone: You can really hear the word sort of ring out and the end of the syllable is particularly drawn out.
  • 2nd tone: I find that this tone stands out because you really hear the rising of the tone and it is extended with the end almost ringing out like the first tone.
  • 3rd tone: An exaggerated 3rd tone is pretty easy to identify because the falling and rising is often very pronounced. Oftentimes, a 3rd tone can be identified most easily as a really low and elongated tone.
  • 4th tone: When the forth tone is exaggerated, the speaker usually starts with much higher tone than normal (more like a first tone) and drops in tone quickly to a low tone.

I hope that this post helps you to understand not only how the 4 tones work, but also helps you start hearing and identifying the tones more easily. It is not uncommon to have trouble hearing them right away, so it’s important to keep at it and trust that it will eventually become natural to you.

Alright, time for a bit of break from all the information and let’s deal with a few ways you can make technology work for you along the way.

Next up: Tech Pit Stop: Setup Chinese Input on Your Computer

How to get started learning Chinese Series