Week #5 – Mell OH Dee

This week’s lesson was all about the melody of words, the natural arc of the language, stressed and non-stressed syllables, etc. I got my assignment done in the final hour and recorded the quiet vocals with my daughter sleeping in the same room, but at least the idea is captured in it’s current “in progress” state.

I couldn’t help thinking the whole time I was listening to these lessons, however, about how much Pat Pattison would enjoy learning Chinese. The tonal aspect of the language controls a lot of its rhythm in the sentence, forcing stresses and rises, dips and high notes for the sake of conveying meaning and not just emotion or intent. Emotion and intent are yet another layer to the existing tones.

I can hear that Pat Pattison not only hears rhythm and melody in language (spoken English) but he hears it like music and loves this about it. I relate. Yet, I think the melody and rhythm of a tonal language like Chinese might, well, blow his mind. It did that to me. When I discovered Chinese in first year university, I was in awe. It felt like I was singing while speaking; everything musical about languages was wrapped up in every word I learned. And tones aren’t locked either. Sometimes compound words will bring two tones together that then shift each word’s tonal pronunciation. Therein lies the roller coaster of rhythm. Look at me, no hands!

In a song’s lyrics, too, people often ask how a tonal languages preserve their tones (read: meaning) when melody is involved. The truth is that meaning is mostly conveyed by the context in Chinese songs, but melodies are still chosen to complement the tone of the words in your lyrical phrase. For instance, if the word has a rising (second) tone, often the note scoops upwards. If the note is a flat, high tone, having it become an accented downbeat in your phrasing will confuse your listeners.

I love this. I admit I’m obsessed by it. What a brain challenge it is to write a song that is not only melodically and lyrically appropriate and catchy, and not only preserves the natural rhythm of the language, but also must preserve (or at least respect) the important tones in each phrase. That’s why I can’t stop writing Chinese songs, I think. My Mom is obsessed with crosswords; this my equivalent.

But, back to the lesson on hand, I wrote a version of my “Love Needs No Dictionary” song with a repetitive loop and the lyrics (as they stand right now) are below, inclusive of stress markers for the sake of the assignment. After all of what I wrote above, you may be surprised to see that this is a song in English, but the song from two weeks ago (Nanshou) is my Chinese companion piece. I always write two songs at once. It’s a habit I’ve had for a long time. I think it keeps my brain happy to switch between them, letting one rest when I’m stuck and working through issues in the other. Since I came to China, I’ve written songs in English/Mandarin pairs. I tend to think of them as musical “fraternal twins” as they gestate and are brought into the world at virtually the same time. After all, our songs are our babies!





SONG TITLE : “Love Needs No Dictionary”  (Link leads to a Soundcloud clip of the beginning)


Verse 1

/      /    –    /  –  –

She was a foreigner

/     /    –   /  –

He was a local

–       /    –    –  /        /      /
They met in a bar downtown

/      /   –    /   (-)  –

Love is a language

–        /    –    –     /    –
That’s not always vocal

–       /         –    –   /       /      /

And here’s how it all went down


Verse 2

/             –    –    /  –   /

Laughed til her belly ached

–   /    –     –     /        –

He acted out meanings

–      /       –    –    /  –  /

She sang all the melodies

–      /    –     –      /      –

That fit with her feelings



–       /    –    /     –   /       –     /

They barely had a common phrase

–      /     –   /     –   /    –     /
They had to find another way

–    /   –       /        –       /      –   /
to say the things they need to say

/      /     –    /

so much to say


   –     /         –      –     –     /       –      –   /       –       –       –

But how could he convince her to stay with him there?           

   –     /         –      –     –     /       –     /   –    –

And how could she explain her history?   

  /   –        –        /     –       /      –      –     /   –         
All they could do was stare at each other  

    /   /     –   / –  

Silence on fire                                                                               


  /            /      –    /      –   /  –      

Love Needs No Dictionary                                                           


Week #6 - Polishing
Week #4 - Rhyme Time

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