Music is the language of the soul.
You can listen to a song in an unfamiliar language and still feel its vibrancy.
It can also be a tool.
When my father came to the United States from Italy forty years ago, he didn’t know a word of English other than “hello” and “help.”
He never went to a class to learn the language, but still somehow managed to become a semi-fluent English speaker within a few years.
His method? “I listened to a lot of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles…”
That’s right. Music helped my father learn English in only a couple of years. While he also did other things, (like constantly asking people in conversations what certain words meant and watching a lot of daytime American television) he was able to learn English through listening to music.
But how exactly can an English speaker learn Chinese with songs? Isn’t it way more different than an Italian speaker learning how to speak English?
Not so much.
How Can I Learn Chinese with Songs?
Kind of like my father with his Frank Sinatra and “Judge Judy,” watching Taiwanese dramas and listening to Mandarin music helped me immerse myself in the Chinese language and gain some fluency.
While listening to a song isn’t akin to participating in a lesson (which can provide you with more tools to learn the language properly) it can do a few things to improve your fluency:
- You can learn new Mandarin vocabulary through lyrics sung through various tracks.
- By listening to an album or a specific track over and over, you can memorize song lyrics and tones and associate them with their English translations to further improve your fluency.
- You’ll also eventually be able to belt out a Chinese ballad with ease, which is sure to impress (or confuse) your friends.
- Plus, what’s better than relaxing with some tunes while technically learning something at the same time? I know all my fellow lazy learners out there can see the merit in this.
Adding songs to your Chinese study routine is a great way to bolster your learning. If you can’t get enough of these kinds of videos, consider giving FluentU a try.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Combine this resource with these 10 awesome tunes and you’re sure to make your learning sessions dynamic!
Learn Chinese with Songs: 10 Awesome Tracks for Memorizing Mandarin
1. “Ambiguous” by Rainie Yang (2005) (曖昧 ài mèi by 楊丞琳 yáng chéng lín)
The Taiwanese drama 惡魔在身邊 (è mó zài shēn biān) — “Devil Beside You” was one of my favorite television shows when I began learning Mandarin Chinese.
Other than being the lead actress of the show, 楊丞琳 (yáng chéng lín) — Rainie Yang also produced one of the main songs from the series. It’s poppy, elegant and entrancing. And the chorus is sure to get stuck in your head.
暧昧让人受尽委屈 (ài mèi rànɡ rén shòu jìn wěi qu) — ambiguity makes people feel wronged
找不到相爱的证据 (zhǎo bú dào xiānɡ ài de zhènɡ jù) — they can’t find evidence of love
2. “The Drunken Beauty” by Li Yu Gang (2007) (新贵妃醉酒 xīn guì fēi zuì jiǔ by 李玉刚 lǐ yù gāng)
贵妃醉酒 (guì fēi zuì jiǔ) — “The Drunken Concubine” was a Qing Dynasty opera in Peking, also known as today’s Beijing. The play is still celebrated and performed in the city to this day with lavish choreography and extremely detailed costuming.
Popular Chinese singer and performer of opera, 李玉刚 (lǐ yù gāng) — Li Yugang, found fame when he performed the leading role. He recorded a song based on the play as well, blending modern and traditional Chinese music to make one truly interesting track. The coolest part of this song is Li Yugang’s uncanny ability to hit traditional female notes.
There are a lot of very simple prepositions and nouns in this song, so it would definitely be easy to memorize as a beginner.
爱恨就在一瞬间 (ài hèn jiù zài yī shùn jiān) — love and hate in a flash
举杯对月情似天 (jǔ bēi duì yuè qíng sì tiān) — toast to the moonlight like those days
3. WeChat by The Higher Brothers (2017) (微信 wēi xìn by 海尔兄弟 hǎi ěr xiōng dì)
海尔兄弟 (hǎi ěr xiōng dì) — The Higher Brothers made waves in the West recently and are often described as the next big rap group in China. Their songs are comedic, modern and fun, and this four-piece rap group can seriously spit some rhymes.
Their song WeChat has a mix of Mandarin and English lyrics, making it a good beginner song for Mandarin learners. You can also learn a bit about today’s youth culture in China in their music, including everything from restricted access to a free internet, sex, romance, food, classism, fashion and slang.
妹都爱跟我聊骚因为[I’m a]天蝎座 (mèi dōu ài gēn wǒ liáo sāo yīn wèi [I’m a] tiān xiē zuò) — girls love to talk to me because I’m a Scorpio
不断有消息来打扰 (bù duàn yǒu xiāo xī lái dǎ rǎo) — continue to have news to disturb
While that last line is a little awkward in English, it makes sense in the full context of the song. Here, 杨俊逸 (yáng yùn yì) — Psy.P is talking about his Scorpio tendency to start drama with his words.
4. “Stranger in the North” by Wang Lee Hom (2017) (漂向北方 piāo xiàng běi fāng by 王力宏 wáng lì hóng)
Taiwanese pop music has its own fairly long list of pop music icons, and 王力宏 (wáng lì hóng) — Wang Leehom is definitely one of them. “Stranger in the North” is catchy and very high-energy, making it the perfect song to try and memorize while sitting in traffic.
There are a lot of complex prepositions in this song and the rapping portions are fairly quick, making it ideal for the intermediate learner.
飄向北方別問我家鄉 (piāo xiàng běi fāng bié wèn wǒ jiā xiāng) — I traveled to the north, don’t ask about my hometown
高聳古老的城牆 擋不住憂傷 (gāo sǒng gǔ lǎo de chéng qiáng dǎng bù zhù yōu shāng) — not even the towering old wall could block the sadness
5. “Light Years Away” by G.E.M (2016) (光年之外 guāng nián zhī wài by 邓紫棋 dèng zǐ qí)
This pop ballad from artist 邓紫棋 (dèng zǐ qí) — G.E.M. is a great track to listen to for learning due to its alternating timing and use of tones.
Mandarin is a very tone-heavy language, and it may seem as if singing in Chinese would be fairly difficult. “Light Years Away” demonstrates how to maintain tones so that they’re understandable while also playing around with how those tones can be used in a singing voice.
記住望著我堅定的雙眼 (jì zhù wàng zhe wǒ jiān dìng de shuāng yǎn) — remember to look at my firm eyes
也許已經 沒有明天 (yě xǔ yǐ jīng méi yǒu míng tiān) — perhaps there is no more tomorrow
6. “Playhouse” by JiaJia (2017) (家家酒 jiā jiā jiǔ by 家家 jiā jiā)
家家 (jiā jiā) — Jia Jia’s track about self-acceptance isn’t just inspiring and beautiful, but it’s also slow enough for beginners to understand and memorize. This pop ballad is a popular mainstream song in China and was used in the soundtrack for the romantic Taiwanese comedy 極品絕配 (jí pîn júe pèi) — “The Perfect Match”.
抱歉 不擅長模仿 (bào qiàn bù shàn cháng mó fǎng) — sorry I’m not good at imitation
你想要的 那種優雅 (nǐ xiǎng yào dì nà zhǒng yōu yā) — the kind of elegance you want
7. “My Chambers” by Soft Lipa (2012) (房間 fáng jiān by 蛋堡 dàn bǎo)
If you’re a fan of more chill, laid-back music, this tribute to bedrooms by 蛋堡 (dàn bǎo) — Soft Lipa will definitely put you in a good mood. Keep in mind that because it’s rap music, the lyrics go by pretty quickly. This track would be ideal for intermediate or advanced speakers.
砖块水泥钢筋 做成四方空心 (zhuān kuài shuǐ ní gāng jīn zuò chéng sì fāng kōng xīn) — brick made of reinforced concrete, square, hollow
空间里所有动静 运作以我为中心 (kōng jiān lǐ suǒ yǒu dòng jìng yùn zuò yǐ wǒ wéi zhōng xīn) — all movement in space is centered on me
8. “Ashima” by Xie Tian Xiao (2013) (阿诗玛 ā shī mǎ by 谢天笑 xiè tiān xiào)
China has quite the interesting underground rock scene. If all the pop ballads and high-energy rap tracks we’ve mentioned thus far aren’t your cup of 茶 (chá) — tea, maybe this hard rock anthem will be. This song has very repetitive lyrics and simple vocabulary words, so if you’re a beginner, enjoy!
我愿在云海中掩饰着你 (wǒ yuàn zài yún hǎi zhōng yǎn shì zhe nǐ) — I want to hide you in the clouds
也愿在黑夜将爱情抛弃 (yě yuàn zài hēi yè jiāng ài qíng pāo qì) — willing to abandon love in the dark night
9. “Sing For You” by EXO (2015) (为你而唱 wéi nǐ ér chàng by EXO)
EXO is a pretty interesting boy band. They perform songs in a mix of English, Mandarin and Korean. If you’re an advanced Mandarin speaker, a novice Korean speaker or up for a challenge, why not try to memorize this beautiful ballad?
我指尖吉他的節拍 染上寂寞的純白 (wǒ zhǐ jiān jí tā de jié pāi rǎn shàng jì mò de chún bái) — my fingertips strum to the beat of the guitar, tainted by the pure white of loneliness
今天要把未完的故事說完 (jīn tiān yào bǎ wèi wán de gù shì shuō wán) — today I must finish telling the unfinished story
10. “Hero” by Jay Chou (2016) (英雄 yīng xióng by 周杰倫 zhōu jié lún)
Need some inspiration? This 周杰倫 (zhōu jié lún) — Jay Chou track is a powerful anthem about sticking together, no matter how hard life gets. This song also has a lot of very basic nouns, verbs and propositions, many of which you would typically learn in Chinese 101. Great for beginners!
人生不是一個人的遊戲 (rén shēng bù shì yī gè rén de yóu xì) — life is not a one-man battle
一起奮鬥一起超越 (yī qǐ fèn dòu yī qǐ chāo yuè) — work together to surpass
一起殺吧[sup]兄弟 (yī qǐ shā ba [sup] xiōng dì) — sup brothers, together we can kill it
好戰好勝戰勝逆命 (hào zhàn hào shèng zhàn shèng nì mìng) — belligerent victory over victory
How catchy are these tracks in Mandarin?
Once you make a playlist of your favorites from this list, you can listen to them while you cook, study or when you’re just chillin’—all while learning Mandarin Chinese.
Em Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist. They write about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.
And One More Thing...
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