Many Chinese learners want to learn about the Chinese music scene. Songs are a great way to study the Chinese language, encounter Chinese culture, or connect with Chinese people. No matter what your motive is, you’re sure to find listening to Chinese music enjoyable and will quickly find your own favorite artists or bands. That being the case, let’s take a look at how to use music to help learn a language or a culture!
Studying Chinese Language
When it comes to using music to study language, there are a few different tacks you might take.
First, it is generally agreed that when learning a language, more linguistic input is always beneficial. To that end, some people pursue what is called “passive listening,” that is, adding Chinese language to the background of your life without paying much attention to it. The process for this is easy: just find a long playlist in your music app and put it on while you’re doing whatever it is you do. In principle, over time you’ll hear some phrases or sentences that are familiar to you, reinforcing those paths in your brain and strengthening your Chinese. That said, research on this method is mixed and it’s universally agreed that it won’t do the whole job; you can’t use passive listening to replace other things such as reading, speaking, writing and active listening.
A more active method is to use music as a way to improve the fluency of your speech. Nearly all language learners find themselves struggling to pace their speech in a fluid and clear manner. Fortunately, songs force you to follow a particular pace. So, practicing singing along with Chinese songs can build fluency over time. Of course, you should probably be selective about which songs you pick and not try anything too fast. The music of Teresa Teng (邓丽君 Dèng Lìjūn) is frequently used in Chinese classrooms for this purpose. Here’s the ultimate, definitely most played song in Chinese classrooms, 《月亮代表我的心》(yuèliang dàibiǎo wǒde xīn).
Unfortunately, many Chinese songs are not imminently helpful in learning or practicing vocabulary and grammar. As in English, many Chinese songs use broken phrases rather than complete sentences or deviate somewhat from the normal grammar rules of regular speech. Or, many songs use poetic language that is outside the reach of most learners. However, children’s songs tend to be very colloquial and very repetitive. This means that they’re great for learning/practicing new words and grammar! Here is an example of one that uses the 把 (bǎ) grammar structure a few times.
Traditional Chinese Culture
China has a musical history ranging thousands of years. There are countless instruments and pieces of music, both instrumental and lyrical. Learning about traditional music is a great way to explore an interest in Chinese culture. While we can’t cover all of that here, here are a few particular instruments you should know about.
First up are the 古筝 (gǔzhēng) and 琵琶 (pípa). The 古筝 is a particularly ancient instrument, with a history of over two thousand years. It lies flat as the musician plucks strings with one hand and presses strings with the other. The 琵琶, also a plucked instrument, is similar to a lute or guitar. Enough with the descriptions, listen for yourself!
Next is the 二胡 (èrhú), an instrument that is often compared to a cello. The inclusion of 二 in the name is no accident; the instrument has two strings.
One more for you is the 唢呐 (suǒnà), an instrument somewhat similar to a clarinet, although the sound is quite different. It’s featured in many traditional Chinese tunes, but also sometimes makes an appearance in more recent works, such as rock star Cui Jian’s 《一无所有》(yīwúsuǒyǒu).
Modern Chinese Culture
Beyond traditional instruments and classical music, music plays a role in modern culture as well, of course. Here are two songs you’ll hear if you spend much time in China.
This is the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China. Originally a call to arms during times of war, it’s now played at all kinds of events and occasions.
This song, with lyrics written by the author 三毛 (Sānmáo), is instantly recognizable as a piece of lyrical and musical art. Beloved by many and known by all in China, the lyrics describe the narrator’s wanderlust and dreams. Neither traditional nor pop, it and others like it have left a cultural imprint in China.
Chinese Pop Culture
Of course, like everywhere around the world, music is critical to understanding pop culture in China. There’s no way we can cover all of the brilliant (and not so brilliant) artists who have made it big in China, but there is one name that towers above all the rest: 周杰伦 (Zhōu Jiélún), or Jay Chou.
周杰伦 plays cello, plays piano and sings. He’s also been in some movies and television, though music has always been his real strength. In earlier years he was known for singing fast and having imprecise articulation. Speaking of years, the man has been a major player in the music world since the year 2000 and is still making and performing music today, with his most recent album released in 2022.
Here’s one of our 周杰伦 favorites,《晴天》(qíngtiān).
Want to add to your playlist?
Check out these articles for some further listening!