Chiang Mai Thai

Ever wanted to learn Thai, in Chiang Mai? I did just that from November 2010, returning home in October 2011. If you don't want a headache, start HERE, it will explain the preceding posts. I'm Snap, Stray's other half. COOEE is our (other) travel blog.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Probably my dumbest question...ever!

Surely not! I'm certain there'll be plenty more where this one came from.

Singing Thai. It's been discussed and agreed (in many cases) that a valuable tool when learning Thai tones, is humming or singing the words. I agree. I try to remember the tone while I'm learning the new word...not learn the word and go looking for the tone later, coz I know, I'll forget to do it.

We were at the Chiang Mai food festival the other night and there were singers on stage. Of course, I can only understand .00000001% of spoken Thai, let alone, Thai that is sung. Now for the stupid question!

If singing is tonal and Thai is tonal, how can Thai be sung to a tune...exactly?

I warned you it was a stupid question.

Let me ask a differnt way. If the song calls for a word to rise to the melody during a song and the Thai word has a falling tone...what the hell happens then?

I tried doing it myself and ended up sounding like a goat being strangled.

See what else we're up to at Cooee!


  1. Interesting question!

    As a semi-musician, the first thing that suggest itself is note 'bending'.

    If you play a saxophone, the note can be affected up and down by lip pressure (or strength of bite). This one of the things that give saxophones, and clarinets, and such like, such a warm, 'human' tone.

    Where a glockenspiel - or piano - has a fixed note - hit the key, bash the metal, and you will always get the fixed pitch.

    So it strikes me as possible to sing a syllable to note - and bend the pitch slightly for rising, or falling tones.

    High, mid and low tones - I have no idea if the whole note is sharp, accurate, or flat to signify tone.

    No, it was an interesting question! It will probably keep me awake tonight.....

  2. Hi Fred, what you say makes sense...about the note bending. I'll have to find a song I know a few words to :( Maybe you could go back to that bar and ask for me, I can just imagine the pickle it might get you into ;)

    Sleep well!

  3. I do hope you get an answer to this because no-one I have asked has been able to give one. In fact only farangs seem to understand the question.

    Here is my guess.

    There are two ways that Thais understand the language. Accurately, tonally, but also (thank heavens for me) by association and context. So as Rama V (I think) advocated, Thai can be understood without the tones.

    But I may be completely wrong as my understanding of the language is basic to say the least.

  4. Stray must have known Rama V in a past life, he has no patience for learning the tones and swears he will be understood because of the 'context'. So, maybe your theory is right, because his phrases/words are generally understood...bad Thai, English tones, with an Aussie accent! We must sound horrendous.

  5. Ok, I'll give it a shot...

    In a song, the entire word sometimes goes up so the tones within a word might still be intact (this might be a stretch but it's the only thing I could think of).

    Here's another issue to watch for - vowel length. Change vowel length and you either get an entirely different word or one that does not exist in Thai.

    And I know vowel length brings up another question - hanging onto a word, dragging it out... does that sometimes change the meaning too?

    Like Dan mentioned, context is king for Thai. And what with everything going on in songs, might context be depended on more than usual?

    In a practical world shouldn't tones + vowel length + context get you somewhere in the ballpark of understanding?

    But... how many of our own songs are mangled, mumbled, and barely recognised as being a language?

    So after all that, I guess I was not much help.

  6. Catherine I agree about many western songs...some of the words are barely recognisable, but we don't rely on tone to determine a word. I'm favouring the context theory so far. Stray has made a friend who speaks excellent English and is Thai. I will try to get a definitive answer soon...after I get to know him a little better.

    "In a song, the entire word sometimes goes up so the tones within a word might still be intact " ...this when I started to sound like I was yodelling!!!!

  7. Catherine's very astute to mention vowel length. Thai singers have a trick for this. When they sing a short word on a note that needs to be drawn out, they finish the word, but sustain the note by reverting to a sort of neutral nasal sound that has no meaning. I don't know exactly how to describe it, but I could demonstrate it (badly) for you. :P

    As for how tone translates into music, though, here goes my explanation. Others are free to dispute my understanding of things.

    Tone in Thai has two parts: pitch and contour.

    In speech, pitch is relative. Person A's middle tone may not be the same pitch as Person B's, but for both people it is in the middle of their normal vocal range. And each person's low tone will be lower than their middle tone. The pitches are relative to their vocal range.

    The other aspect of tone, the contour, is just as important to comprehension as the pitch. You can think of each tone has having a starting pitch and an ending pitch. For the falling tone, the starting pitch is higher in your vocal range and falls down to around the middle of your vocal range. What makes the tone identifiable is the falling contour (or in other words the change in pitch from start to end of word).

    Now if you think about music -- a melody is identifiable based on the interval between each note. So you can sing a melody in any key, you just have to keep the interval between each note the same.

    In Thai singing, I believe lyrics are understood through a combination of context, relative pitch, and contour.

    At the point of composition I believe the melody is influenced -- but not limited -- by the tones of the lyrics it is to be sung with. But the actual performance of the song also entails inserting peaks and valleys -- modulating the voice as appropriate to give the lyrics the appropriate tone contours.

    I do think context plays a big part, though, more than in normal speech. Because it seems especially in Western-influenced music, the melody can regularly trump the tones.

    Actually, here's an interesting mashup: Thailand's immortal rock band Carabao did a cover album of Bob Marley songs, with Thai lyrics (only quasi-translated).

    'No Woman No Cry' became ไม่ต้องร้องไห้.

    'I Shot the Sheriff' became ฉันยิงกะลา.

    And so forth. Have a listen and see how the melodies compare.

  8. Hi Rikker, thank for your information, it's going to take me a while for it all to sink in. The songs: the melodies seem to be intact, although I can't yet understand the words. So context DOES seem to be key, when it comes to Thai songs!

    The band isn't bad either...although I think they've really misinterpreted the meaning of 'I shot the sheriff'...or changed the words?

    "In speech, pitch is relative. Person A's middle tone may not be the same pitch as Person B's, but for both people it is in the middle of their normal vocal range. And each person's low tone will be lower than their middle tone. The pitches are relative to their vocal range."

    This is a question I asked myself way back, when I first started to dabble in Thai.

    Thanks again for your comment, it's certainly shed some light on the subject.

  9. The Carabao/Marley songs aren't true translations. They're adapted to fit Thai social themes. 'I Shot the Sheriff' deals with cruel treatment of hill tribe minorities.

    There's one, an adaptation of Redemption Song (called ปลดแอก), that seems to be a pretty faithful translation, but it varies from song to song.

    Another example occurred to me--Thai Christians use translated versions of common Western hymns. In my experience the Thai versions adhere faithfully (pun intended) to the familiar melodies. So in those cases context really is the key.

  10. Thank you Rikker. I listened to the songs you shared and now I can see why Thai songs often come across choppy. The short vowels in Thai force what sounds like a premature halt and there is only so much one can do to smooth the transition to the next word. Ok, I only listened to the two Thai songs so I might be missing the mark here... but that's what I heard.

  11. Lovely--I like those Thai songs a lot! And that's totally not a dumb question, Snap...

  12. Hi Megan, it does seem that my question wasn't so dumb after all :) It's been an interesting discussion!

  13. Today I happened to run across the word that describes Thai-style vocalization.

    In Thai it's called เอื้อนเสียง or เอื้อนเอ่ย.

    According to the Domnern-Garden dictionary, the comparable English term is "melisma." Wikipedia defines melisma as "the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession." Melisma is often associated with Gregorian chanting, to give one non-Thai example.

    This contrasts with "syllabic" singing, meaning each syllable is its own note, which English singing largely is. So we could say that Thai singing is "melismatic."

    Not that most people in English would have ever heard the word, but I thought it was interesting, so here I am sharing it. :)

  14. Rikker, you are correct, I am one of, no doubt, many that has never heard of may have opened another Pandoras box ;) I had to visit 'Simple' Wiki to get a better understanding.
    and listen to a version of Handel's Messiah

    Thanks for taking the time to come back and comment.

    I think I've got it!!!! :)

  15. Snap, same as Chinese. they read the words on the screen and sing the melody. the tones are ignored and the context is what they follow to make sense.

  16. @MJ Klein

    Michael, so there should be hope for my speech ;)...which is terribly, tonally incorrect, as far as the Thai language is concerned.

    PS. this comment is a guinea pig...first time I've used the recently installed reply button.


Feel free to comment.