Sitting on the balcony of my house on a lazy afternoon, distorted strains of neighborhood karaoke mingle with the chirping of songbirds. The recorded refrains of men on motorbikes selling corn, rice cakes and snails (“Bắp đây! Dạ, bánh chưng đây. Chả đây.”) rise above the constant drone of construction and sporadic rumble of traffic. Middle-aged ladies with every inch of skin sun-protected repeat their practiced request for recyclables from their bicycles: “chai bao bán không?”

Perhaps these vendors’ slogans are not intended melodies in the way karaoke performances are, but I can’t help hearing their rhythmic and tonal contours as a wonderful sort of everyday music. These qualities stem partly from the nature of Vietnamese, a language in which pitch height and shape (in addition to subtle features such as creakiness and breathiness) are primary in distinguishing words.1 But these melodies are not solely the unintended consequences of speech in a tone language – they are also catchy jingles which help bring business. One may recall the ice cream trucks throughout America who have made a summertime business model out of the anthemic earworm “Turkey in the Straw.” The difference is that in these jingles, the melody is the words; it is made out of language.

How do these melodies of the language relate to the melodies of songs?

These mobile melodies, however frequent, only make up a small portion of Đà Nẵng’s melodic soundscape. Restaurant performers, raucous weddings bands, coffee shop trios, clusters of men crooning around guitars, and living-room karaoke spilling out into the neighborhood — these are all regular occurrences of the singing which is central to public life in this city. Because if there’s one thing Vietnamese love more than listening to music, it’s singing. Linguists Pfordresher and Brown suggest that “the use of pitch to convey lexical information in one’s native language facilitates the use of pitch in nonlinguistic contexts”.2 Thus, people whose everyday language use requires attention to pitch and contour have a heightened ability to perceive and produce these qualities in other areas – for instance, music. Perhaps this partially explains the fond integration of singing and melody into so many aspects of life here.

At popular open-air restaurants (quán), nhạc dạo đường phố (street performers) often stop by to render heartfelt covers of popular songs over backing tracks on mobile PAs while their partners sell a hard candy called kẹo kéo. A restaurant patron may offer a few thousand VND to take over the mic and serenade a friend or lover.


At weddings, birthday parties, Tét (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) celebrations and other special events, nhạc live (literally, live music) bands play well-known tunes on some combination of keyboard, drums, bass and guitar. Usually performed on a makeshift stage set up in the middle of a blocked-off street or in a vacant lot, nhạc live will likely be accompanied by a mood of general drunkenness, a large quantity of home-cooked food, and giant posters celebrating the occasion. Much like the restaurant performances, event-goers also get a chance to sing during a nhạc live show. The band warms up the audience by singing the first few songs and then lets attendees request tracks to perform. Sometimes these same nhạc live musicians also perform in pared down, less ceremonious weekly gigs at coffee shops.

On the odd night outside a small restaurant, a group of men can be found bonding over bottles of Biere Larue and an acoustic guitar, howling out classic tunes until the late hours of the night. And several times a month, a group of around twenty guitarists circle up near the river downtown, joining together to play and sing the same songs in unison.

Bleeding out from the walls of bars and living rooms all over the city at all hours of the day and night, one can hear people of all ages engaging in the massively popular activity known as karaoke – singing over a pre-recorded backing track while reading the lyrics from a screen. The younger set prefer to rent a private karaoke room by the hour to indulge in nhạc trẻ (young people’s dance music) or nhạc quê hương (countryside songs, evocative of rural life). They might go to karaoke after a dinner with friends or as the main event of a night out.

Karaoke for older people generally involves singing nhạc cách mạng (patriotic war songs) or nhạc vàng (emotional songs about love in wartime) in the comfort of home, with a few family members or friends. This living-room karaoke sounds like a calm, private activity, yet its consistently thundering volume propagates into the soundscape of the neighborhood, predominating over the noises of the aforementioned construction, traffic, and vendors.


These are the sounds of Đà Nẵng, the melodies of the city, the strains of Vietnamese which carry and are starting to become familiar. Some of them are made out of language like the vendors’ calls, but most are more overtly musical. So what does it mean to compose or sing songs in such a tone language, in which pitch contours relate directly to word meanings?

The first level of tonal contour in Vietnamese is the word – each is inscribed with an upward, downward, concave, flat or one of several broken tones. Additionally, some vowels have inherent tones, rendering words with inner melodies. And the almost exclusively monosyllabic lexicon gives sentences a kind of steady rhythm. Then how do these melodies of the language relate to the melodies of songs? The way our vocal apparatus is designed, we cannot sing two independent melodic lines simultaneously. So when writing music in a tone language, which takes precedence: the inherent tones of the language or the desired melody of the composer? Must he/she bend to the demands of language to design a melody shaped around these tones?

Yes and no. Lian Hee Wee notes, with respect to tone-tune correspondence in the composition of Mandarin songs, that the tonal integrity of the syllables in primary, accented positions must be maintained – but that words in between these important positions can and often do drop their tones for the sake of melodic independence, and meaning will be assumed through context. Thus, if we can extrapolate from Mandarin, composing music in a tone language is a dialectical process, in which the inherent tones of the chosen words influence the design of melody, but also yield to it. This is validated by the opinions of my Vietnamese friends, who note that in practice no songs are entirely faithful to the seemingly required tonal contours.


Photo courtesy Flickr user hrdrck.

So what is it like to sing these songs? How does one know which tones to preserve and which to leave out? What happens to meaning when tones are dropped? At karaoke sessions with friends, I have strained to hear whether tones are preserved in sung performances. My friend Phan Ngoc Hao says that when attempting to sing a song for the first time, the demands of the melody automatically dictate which linguistic tones can be preserved. Once the song becomes familiar, he can articulate all the tones which fit with the melody, but by necessity will have to forgo a falling tone when the melody is rising, and vice versa. Hao also noted that because of the dropped tones, it can be difficult to understand the words of an unfamiliar song without seeing the lyrics, particularly if it is sung by someone with a different accent (i.e. who pronounces the tones differently).

The subtle features of creakiness and breathiness, which Pham marks as important signals of meaning in addition to pitch in Vietnamese 4 , are more easily preserved while singing, since they are not as strongly affected by the presence of a musical melody. For instance, I often hear the broken tones pronounced in sung Vietnamese, since they are less dependent on the directionality of the melody.

When I asked my friends Hao, Uyen and Khai about the most important aspect of a singing performance, they independently agreed on the accuracy of “tones”. After some clarification, I discovered that they use the word “tone” not to refer to the requirements of their language, but to what I call notes, those elements of the melody dictated by the composer. Perhaps this lexical confusion was a coincidence, perhaps a consequence of mistranslation. Even so, it tells us something about the incestuous relationship between music and language, through cross-pollination between languages of talking about music. To preserve the tone (feeling, mood, meaning) of the song, there must be a close, yet not exact relation between the tones (notes) and the tones (linguistic accents).

When I first arrived in Đà Nẵng, the incessant call of the mobile corn vendors was stuck in my head before any pop song, perhaps because it invaded my personal aural bubble so constantly, no matter the time or my location. I started to wonder how men selling corn for fifty cents could afford the amount of petrol they burn every day in their constant roving about town. It was only later that I discovered a sinister side of these melodies: many vendors function as (highly visible) spies for the government. Thus, the people of the city are free to sing loudly and proudly in a variety of public settings, yet the Party is listening, chugging along, peeping around every corner, its incessant refrain a constant reminder of surveillance: *“Bắp đây! Dạ,bánhchưng đây. Chả đây.

Cover photo courtesy Flickr user AG Gilmore. | All photos, audio and video recordings courtesy Ashlin Aronin, unless otherwise noted.

  1. Pham, 2.

  2. Pfordresher et al, 1395.

  3. Wee, 9.

  4. Pham, 2.


Pfordresher, Peter Q., and Steven Brown. “Enhanced Production and Perception of Musical Pitch in Tone Language Speakers.” Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics 71.6 (2009): 1385-398.

Pham, Andrea Hoa. Vietnamese Tone: A New Analysis. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Wee, Lian Hee. “Unraveling the Relation between Mandarin Tones and Musical Melody.” Journal of Chinese Linguistics 35.1 (2007): 128-44.