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Intonation: How to Speak with Pitch Changes

Intonation is the pattern of pitch changes as people speak. These change from one culture to another. Pitch is the tone of your voice. In American English, people have about 3 notes that they use when speaking. Most words are in the middle tone. Stressed words are in the high tone
, and the low-tone often comes before a stress (it makes the stress larger by creating more difference in tone). The low tone may be used at the end of sentences too, though you do not always have to end on a low tone.

People who prefer to use less expression when they speak might use 3 half-tones, for instance, on a piano it could be the G, the G flat and the G sharp. People who prefer a lot of expression might use more than three notes too.

If you feel like you cannot change your pitch, use this technique. Yawn out loud--let yourself make a sound. As you do this, go from a high to a low sound. You only need 3 notes, so do not worry if your high-to-low range is simple.

* The Golden Rule of Changing Pitch *

What goes up must come down, and what goes down must come up. Think of pitch-change like diving off a diving board.

In American English, we change our pitch on the words we stress. If your voice does not seem to go up easily, try to make your voice low first--then go up on the stressed word. The same works in the opposite. If you change your pitch on a stressed word and then seem to stay on that same tone, you probably did not go down on the next word. Go back and try again, making sure to lower your pitch just after you raise it.



We met our friends at the movies.

                              friends             mo-
               We met                     at the         vies


When stressing a one-syllable word, you will raise your pitch for the stressed word. You will lower your pitch on the next word.

For a stressed word with 2 or more syllables, you will change your pitch for the stressed syllable. You will lower your pitch on the next syllable of that word. If the word happens to have stress on the last syllable, then you will lower your pitch on the next word.

Which words should you stress?

Remember that in American English, we stress important information which usually includes many nouns at the beginning of a story or conversation. The nouns will establish the basics needed to understand--names and numbers are very frequently stressed. Once nouns are understood, they change to pronouns and verbs get more stress. As the story or conversation continues, adjectives and adverbs become more important. That is only a very general guide, though. Stress the words that are most necessary to the meaning you want to express. For every 5 - 8 words, which one word does the listener need to hear most? That is the word to stress.

Listening for Pitch

If you learned British English as a child, you may find it difficult to hear the difference between certain large vowel sounds of American English and the pitch-change of stressed words. The long E sound in "see" and the long I sound as in "light" are slightly high sounds by nature. The short O as in "hot" might also sound a little higher than the long O as in "boat." The long E, the long I and the short O are made with the mouth quite open. Other sounds like the long O or the long U are made by rounding the lips, closing off some of the sound.

For Americans, these differences in sound-quality are unconscious. There are no tonal rules to American words. We change tones consciously only when we stress a word or go down at the end of a sentence. Think about the differences in sound in this sentence:

  girl               cat.                  sees
The          sees a                  She            it.

Remember that we tend to stress nouns until the nouns become pronouns. You can write your own sentences using the above pattern to teach yourself how to hear the difference between a high vowel sound and a high pitch. Remember that "high" is simply the note above normal--it is not the same as a high note in singing.

Continue Learning

Word Stress: 5 Steps

Word Stress: Introduction

Prepare to Speak: Warm-up

Articulation: Speak Clearly

Student Questions

Continue Learning

How to Change Your Speech

Chart of English Language Accents

Choosing Your Voice

Milestones in Pronunciation

Accent Training with Thoughts

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