Lyrical composition in Cantopop

June 16, 2011 at 4:21 pm (Arts and languages)

Cantopop, or Cantonese pop music, generally refers to the songs and music videos created by the Hong Kong music industry.[1] Over the last thirty years, Cantopop has had widespread success in countries from Japan to Malaysia, and is credited with giving birth to the entire Chinese pop (C-pop) music style.

One of the features of Cantopop that are not too often appreciated in public is the sheer difficulty of composing lyrics in Cantonese. The main problem lies in the tonal system. A tone is the unique (relative) pitch associated to a word; a tonal language uses pitch to distinguish between different meanings. English, for example, is not a tonal language, for pitch cannot on its own be used to differentiate between words or between meanings of a word. There is a distinction between stress and unstressed syllables in English, which involves pitch, but this difference is mainly observed in the vowels – think of “RE-cord” (n.) versus “re-CORD” (v.).

As most people probably know, Mandarin and Cantonese are both tonal languages. However, there is an important difference that makes lyrical composition in Cantonese much more difficult. Whereas in Mandarin the tones can be distinguished solely by their contour (i.e. whether the pitch of a word is rising, falling or a combination of both), in Cantonese the tones are mainly distinguished by the level of their pitch. [2] This means that lyricists in Cantonese have to match their lyrics exactly with the pitch of the song, an astronomically difficult task. Since lyrics in Chinese songs tend to have regular verse lengths and requires rhyming, composing lyrics in Cantonese is essentially no different from the ancient art of writing Chinese poetry.[3]

That makes lyrical composition a highly advanced technique, and explains why almost all lyrics in Cantopop are written by professional lyricists rather than their singers. Indeed, a significant share of Cantopop lyrics in the last 20 years were written by two professional lyricists, Leung Wai Man (梁偉文, pen-name: Lam Sik 林夕) and Wong Wai Man (黃偉文). The skill of professional lyricists was so highly regarded that they were often more well-known than the singers who sang their verses: singing is easy, but writing lyrics is hard. A sign of this regard is that in the credits that are shown at the beginning of each music video, the name of a lyricist is often honored side-by-side with that of the singer.

An advantage of this feature is that lyrics in Cantopop generally tend to be of high quality, even in cases where the melody isn’t. One can feel safe at night knowing that songs like Friday or Bupa Bupa (wiki) would never be written in Cantopop. Moreover, even if they were to be written, they would be rejected emphatically by the audience: Parallel to the professionalism of lyrical composition in Cantopop is a general respect for the quality of lyrics in the public. Lyrics are considered central to every song; singing and melody are often secondary. That is why Apple had a hard time entering the Chinese digital music player market, even as iPods and iPhones enjoy great success – iTunes does not have a lyrics display.

Several examples of Cantopop music:

鄧麗君 – 但願人長久 (1982, lyrics from the 11th century)
譚詠麟 – 一生中最愛 (1991)
王菲 – 紅豆 (1998)
陳奕迅 – 富士山下 (2006)

Further reading:

粵語歌詞的「平仄」──零二四三(溯源篇) (in Chinese)


1. Cantonese, or Yue Chinese, is a language spoken in southern China and overseas by over 90 million people (see this map). There are three main reasons why Cantopop is almost exclusively produced in Hong Kong and not in the rest of the Canton province. First, Hong Kong was industrialized earlier than the rest of the Canton province and hence was the natural birthplace of Cantonese pop music. Second, there has been a policy of replacing Cantonese with Mandarin in public under the Communist Party’s rule; Hong Kong was spared of this. Finally, there are many (barely mutually intelligible) dialects of Cantonese, and the Hong Kong population generally speaks the prestige dialect Guangfu (or Standard Cantonese) that originated in the capital Guangzhou, thus giving Hong Kong a further advantage.

(The terminology can be confusing – “Canton” is a transcription for Guangdong, the province; but it is used by Western academics to describe the provincial capital Guangzhou, and hence “Cantonese” is often used misleadingly to refer to the dialect of the provincial capital, while Yue is used to refer to the entire language instead. The problem with this is that “Canton” (廣東) and “Yue” (粵) are synonyms in Chinese, so it makes no sense to let them denote different things in linguistics.)

Note that Cantopop generally refers to all mainstream music in Hong Kong, rather than a specific genre. For various reasons, the concept of “genre” is not well-understood in Chinese music. In terms of Western genres, Cantopop can be regarded as a fusion of pop/R&B, classical, rock and occasionally hip-hop music.

2. To be precise, Standard Mandarin has four tones: 1. High-level (陰平), 2. High-rising (陽平), 3. Dipping (上), and 4. falling (去). Given a maximum pitch of 5 and a minimum pitch of 1, the contour of the tones can be described as: 1. 55, 2. 35, 3. 214, 4. 51.  Note that all tones have a different “shape”. Thus, there is little risk of confusion even if the relative pitch at the beginning of each word is mismatched.

That is often difficult to understand for new learners, but it is quite simple compared to Cantonese. In Standard Cantonese, there are nine tones. Moreover, they are virtually indistinguishable by their contour. Four of the tones have the same contour (level); they are distinguished only by their relative pitch. Three more of the tones are stopped; they have the same pitch and contour as three of the previous four tones, but are “shorter”. Only two of the tones are not level, the medium-rising (陰上) and low-rising (陽上) tones.

3. Some time during the 1920s, the Chinese literarti (having misunderstood Western modernism) stopped composing poems with form and structure and began to experiment with nonsensical drivel. Cantopop is, in a way, a reinvention of the lost art.

Classical Chinese poems are generally composed by filling in ci (詞, lyrics) to established structures known as cipai (詞牌, roughly translated as “form”). This is analogous to Western poetry, e.g. sonnets. Instead of stressed and unstressed syllables, cipai generally require the tone of a syllable to be either level (平) or oblique  (仄). Like Western poetry, verse length, the number of lines, and the rhyming pattern are all fixed in each cipai. Unlike Western poetry, however, there is much more variation between different cipai; this is because ci are generally written to accompany different melodies. Hence, Classical Chinese poetry is much more similar to modern music than their Western counterparts, and in fact some famous Classical poems have been adapted to popular music.

There is a further reason why Classical Chinese poetry and Cantopop are similar. Whereas Mandarin has evolved considerably since the Tang dynasty, Cantonese is a direct descendent of Middle Chinese (see this graph). Hence, in terms of pronunciation, tone and vocabulary, Cantonese is much more similar to Classical Chinese than Mandarin is. (This can be quite interesting when studying history: in Chinese, the name for the Turkic peoples (Turkut) is “突厥”. This is pronounced Tu-jue (tooh-jyue) in Mandarin and Dat-kyut (duht-kut) in Cantonese. The Cantonese pronunciation is much closer to the original name in Turkish and hence also closer to the English name. Similarly, in Chinese, the name for the Hunnic peoples is “匈奴”, pronounced Xiong-nu (syoon-nooh) in Mandarin and Hung-nou (Hong-no) in Cantonese, and the Cantonese version is much closer to the English name.)


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