Overview of Cantonese Tones

In this lesson

  • Understanding that tones can change word meaning in Cantonese
  • Learning Cantonese tones by singing
  • Discovering the six Cantonese tones

Welcome to the second section of the course! In this section, we are going to dive into Cantonese tones. Cantonese tones have been “notorious” as some of them sound very similar to each other and it is extremely difficult for learners or even native speakers to distinguish them. But hopefully by the end of this section you will discover how beautiful they sound! In this lesson, we are going to first discuss what tones are and then go through each Cantonese tone.

Tone and Meaning

Tones are pitch patterns applied to syllables that can change word meaning. That is, if we pronounce a given syllable with different pitch patterns and therefore are saying different words with different word meanings, we are saying the syllables with different tones. For example, if we say the syllable si with a high pitch versus a low pitch and therefore are saying two words with different word meanings, we are saying si with different tones.

Languages that use tones to express different word meanings are called tone languages, and languages that do not are called non-tone languages. Let’s look at some examples to understand the difference between tone and non-tone languages.

In non-tone languages like English, no matter how we change the pitch pattern of a word, we are still saying the same word and expressing the same word meaning. Listen to this example of the word see:


No matter which pitch pattern we use to say the word see, we’re still saying the same see which expresses the word meaning of “perceiving with our eyes”.

In tone languages like Cantonese, changing the pitch pattern of a given syllable will change the word meaning as well. Listen to this example of the syllable si:


We can say the syllable si in 6 different tones. When we say the syllable si in six different tones, we are actually saying six different words with six different word meanings. For example, si with a high pitch means “poem” and si with a low pitch means “matter”.

Now that you understand tones are used to express different word meanings in tone languages like Cantonese, we can start learning Cantonese tones. But before we discuss Cantonese tones as we will in a language class, let’s approach them in a different way!

Singing Cantonese Tones 🎵

Saying words with different tones in sentences is quite similar to singing where we sing the lyrics of a song with different pitch patterns. So speaking Cantonese is actually quite similar to singing. Now let’s have a singing lesson! Hmmm, we should first clear our voices. Ahem, ahem. Ready? Follow me:


Okay, let’s sing faster. Follow me:


Congratulations! You have already mastered the Cantonese tones! Of course, in speech, the difference between different tones is much subtler, which makes the whole tone thing challenging. Listen to how Cantonese tones sound like in speech:


You should have some ideas of Cantonese tones now. Let’s look at them more formally.

The Six Cantonese Tones

Cantonese has six tones. Some people and books may say that Cantonese has nine tones instead. We are going to discuss the topic of six versus nine tones later in the course. For now, let’s assume that Cantonese has six tones.

Before listening to the tones, let’s see how they look like on paper. We can show pitch patterns of the tones using something like the staff in music:

The five grey horizontal lines show how we can divide our pitch range for speech into five subranges. The top is the high pitch, the middle is mid pitch, and the bottom is low pitch.

Each black line represents a tone:

Each black line shows the pitch of the respective tone and whether its pitch changes throughout the syllable, from the start to the end of the syllable. For example, Tone 2 starts with the low pitch and rises to the high pitch at the end of the syllable:

We can divide the six tones into two categories: level tones and contour tones. For level tones, the pitch remains steady throughout the whole syllable without any rises or falls:

For contour tones, the pitch changes throughout the syllable, either rising or falling:

Note that we will first use the syllable si to learn the six tones and will practice with other words later in the lesson.

Level Tones

Cantonese has three level tones. Each of them has its own pitch. Their pitch remains steady throughout the whole syllable without any rises or falls.

Tone 1, high level, has a high pitch:


Tone 3, mid level, has a mid pitch:


Tone 6, low level, has a low pitch:


Contour Tones

In contour tones, the pitch changes throughout the syllable. The pitch can either rise from a lower pitch to a higher pitch, or fall from a higher pitch to a lower pitch. Tones with a rise in pitch is called rising tones, and those with a fall is called falling tones. Cantonese has two rising tones and one falling tone.

Rising Tones

Both two rising tones start from the low pitch but they differ in how much the pitch rises.

For Tone 2, high rising, the pitch rises a lot from the low pitch to the high pitch:


Note that the name ‘high rising’ is kind of misleading because the tone does not rise from the high pitch but from the low pitch. However, since most books use the name ‘high rising’, we are going to follow them and use this name.

For Tone 5, low rising, the pitch rises just a bit from the low pitch to the mid pitch:


Falling Tone

For Tone 4, low falling, the pitch falls from the low pitch to even lower:


Tones in Jyutping

In Jyutping, the tone of a syllable is represented by the number at the end of the syllable. For example, in si1 , the number 1 at the end shows that this syllable is pronounced with a high level tone. Each tone and its number are summarized in the table below:

Tone NumberToneExample
Tone 1High levelsi1
Tone 2High risingsi2
Tone 3Mid levelsi3
Tone 4Low fallingsi4
Tone 5Low risingsi5
Tone 6Low levelsi6

Speaking Practice 1

Let’s practice all the tones together. Listen carefully. Don’t rush into repeating them. Just listen.


Now listen and repeat. We will start with only Tone 1 and gradually add the other tones.


Speaking Practice 2

Let’s practice each tone with different words. Listen and repeat:

1 (High level) si1 tin1 saam1 maau1 biu1 teng1
2 (High rising) si2 gong2 gau2 daan2 mou2 toi2
3 (Mid level) si3 dang3 fu3 baat3 leng3 goek3
4 (Low falling) si4 haai4 jan4 peng4 mun4 ling4
5 (Low rising) si5 ngo5 lei5 lou5 ngaan5 tou5
6 (Low level) si6 daai6 maai6 sap6 jit6 maan6

So these are the six Cantonese tones! In the coming lessons, we will look at different sets of similar tones and develop the skills to hear and produce the differences between the similar tones. See you in the next lesson!