Tones: ear-training and quizzes

This post gives you experience in identifying basic tonal distinctions: high and low, rising and falling and level.

High and Low

 
First we’ll consider syllables which are simply either high or low (i.e. relatively high or low in the speaker’s pitch range). Here is Bruce Hayes of UCLA demonstrating such tones on “nonsense” syllables; the clips are from his own more advanced tone practice page here. To hear the clips, сlick on the written symbols:

Now some real examples from the Nigerian language Igbo. The clips are from the UCLA Phonetics Lab Archive). The grave ` and acute ´ accents are IPA symbols for low and high tone respectively.

Here is a quiz to test your ability to hear high and low syllables. To take the quiz again (re-randomized), just refresh this page.

Question 1


A
all Low
B
all High
C
Low-High
D
High-Low
Question 2


A
all Low
B
all High
C
Low-High
D
High-Low
Question 3


A
all Low
B
all High
C
Low-High
D
High-Low
Question 4


A
all Low
B
all High
C
Low-High
D
High-Low
Question 5


A
all Low
B
all High
C
Low-High
D
High-Low
Question 6


A
all Low
B
all High
C
Low-High
D
High-Low
Question 7


A
all Low
B
all High
C
Low-High
D
High-Low
Question 8


A
all Low
B
all High
C
Low-High
D
High-Low
Question 9


A
all Low
B
all High
C
Low-High
D
High-Low
Question 10


A
all Low
B
all High
C
Low-High
D
High-Low
There are 10 questions to complete.

Rise, Fall and Level

 

We’ll begin with Daniel Jones producing a long vowel (cardinal 5, ɑ): first with level pitch, then with pitch rising slowly from low to high, and then with pitch falling slowly from high to low. (The level pitch is quite high in his range, but we’re concerned here with the fact that it neither rises nor falls.)

If you want to check you’re hearing these patterns correctly, take this quiz which uses a range of long cardinal vowels:

Question 1


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 2


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 3


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 4


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 5


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 6


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
There are 6 questions to complete.

(To take the quiz again with re-randomized questions, refresh this page.)

Now here are the three patterns with more normal, speech-like duration. First, Jill House saying cardinal vowel 2, e, then Bruce Hayes saying “da” syllables:

The next examples are from Standard (Mandarin) Chinese. The clips come from Ladefoged & Disner’s Vowels and Consonants; note that the established Chinese tone marks are not official IPA symbols.

The following quiz tests your ability to hear level, rising and falling syllables, using nonsense syllables and Chinese:

Question 1


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 1 Explanation: 
Standard Chinese 十 shí 'ten'
Question 2


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 2 Explanation: 
Standard Chinese 回 huí 'return‘
Question 3


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 3 Explanation: 
High level, to be precise
Question 4


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 4 Explanation: 
Standard Chinese 妈 mā 'mother'
Question 5


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 6


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 6 Explanation: 
Standard Chinese 师 shī 'division'
Question 7


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 7 Explanation: 
High level, to be precise
Question 8


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 8 Explanation: 
Standard Chinese 到 dào 'to'
Question 9


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 9 Explanation: 
Standard Chinese 灰 huī 'grey'
Question 10


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 10 Explanation: 
Standard Chinese 麻 má 'hemp'
Question 11


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 11 Explanation: 
Standard Chinese 会 huì 'can'
Question 12


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 12 Explanation: 
Low level, to be precise
There are 12 questions to complete.

(To take the quiz again with re-randomized questions, refresh this page.)

Level tones are often used on hesitation syllables of the type which in English are sometimes written “er”, “uh”, etc. In the standard accents of British and American English, a rising tone often occurs on questions (especially yes/no questions) and on non-final statements; a fall is usual on citation forms and on final statements. Here is Jill House saying a hesitation-type vowel, then ten with a rise, and three with a fall:

A rise can be thought of as a lower tone followed by a higher tone, with a natural slide between the two targets; likewise a fall can be thought of as a higher tone followed by a lower tone. In Igbo, a low-tone vowel can be followed by a high-tone vowel to create a rising pitch, e.g. kpàá ‘to suggest’. Listen to the similarity in pitch between this word and an English word said with a rise (home said by Peter Ladefoged):

In a language like English, which is not a tone language like Igbo or Chinese, tones are not specified for every syllable. Rather, they are assigned to whole words or phrases. This means that rises and falls are often spread across more than one syllable. For example, when an English fall occurs over two syllables, the first is said relatively high and the second relatively low. Listen to the similarity in pitch between Igbo ákʷà ‘cloth’, which we heard above, and English follow said by Peter Ladefoged with a fall. In both words, the first syllable is relatively high (with a small rise up to the highest pitch, more marked in the English example), while the second syllable is relatively low:

To end, here is a quiz combining cardinal vowels, nonsense syllables and words from various languages. You have to decide for each utterance whether the tone stays level, rises or falls. (As before, refreshing this page will re-randomize the quiz.)

Question 1


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 2


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 2 Explanation: 
Cardinal vowel 8, u
Question 3


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 3 Explanation: 
Igbo ákʷà ‘cloth’ (first syllable high, second low)
Question 4


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 4 Explanation: 
Cardinal vowel 2, e
Question 5


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 5 Explanation: 
Cardinal vowel 2, e
Question 6


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 6 Explanation: 
Standard Chinese 是 shì 'be'
Question 7


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 8


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 9


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 9 Explanation: 
Standard Chinese 到 dào 'to'
Question 10


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 10 Explanation: 
Cardinal vowel 6, ɔ
Question 11


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 11 Explanation: 
Standard Chinese 麻 má 'hemp'
Question 12


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 13


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 13 Explanation: 
Igbo ákʷá 'cry' (both syllables high)
Question 14


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 14 Explanation: 
Both syllables are high
Question 15


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 16


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 16 Explanation: 
First syllable low, second syllable high
Question 17


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 17 Explanation: 
As sometimes happens in English, there is a slight rise at the beginning of this word, but the pitch is mainly falling.
Question 18


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 18 Explanation: 
Standard Chinese 刀 dāo 'knife'
Question 19


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 19 Explanation: 
Cardinal vowel 4, a
Question 20


A
Level
B
Rise
C
Fall
Question 20 Explanation: 
Cardinal vowel vowel 6, ɔ
There are 20 questions to complete.