The Four Mandarin Chinese Tones

Tones are an essential part of proper pronunciation. In Mandarin Chinese, many characters have the same sound. Therefore tones are necessary when speaking Chinese in order to differentiate words from each other.

Four Tones

There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese, which are:

  • First tone: a level and higher pitch
  • Second tone: rising, start from a lower pitch and end at a slightly higher pitch
  • Third tone: falling rising, start at a neutral tone then dip to a lower pitch before ending at a higher pitch
  • Fourth tone: falling, start the syllable at a slightly higher than neutral pitch then go quickly and strongly downwards

Reading and Writing Tones

Pinyin uses either numbers or tone marks to indicate the tones. Here is the word ‘ma’ with numbers and then tone marks:

  • First tone: ma1 or 
  • Second tone: ma2 or 
  • Third tone: ma3 or 
  • Fourth tone: ma4 or 

Note that there is also a neutral tone in Mandarin. It’s not considered a separate tone, but it is an unaccented syllable. For example, 嗎 / 吗 (ma) or 麼 / 么 (me).