What is Pitch?

Now, what I personally believe (and how I have personally been teaching pronunciation for the last decade) is that voice pitch is essentially the only physical instrument we manipulate to produce the wanted intonation, music or whatever you want to call it. The purpose of using different patterns of pitch height (pitch height is an aspect of stress) and pitch movement (pitch movement is the basis for tone and intonation) is to convey specific meanings, ideas, messages, mood, feelings and emotions.

 What is Tone?

It is used to refer to the melody of 1 main syllable commonly found at the end of a phrase or sentence. It can also be the ONLY syllable/word. For example:
Right↘:Being agreeable/obedient in a conversation.
Right?↗: Confirming your understanding of new information you've just been given.
Right...→:You're showing the speaker that you're actively listening and that you possibly know where they're heading with the conversation.

What is an Intonation Unit?

It is used to refer to  a small or larger chunk of words representing an idea or a thought. Each chunk or group of words is known as a "thought group". We use 1 or several thought groups to convey a message, idea or thought. The more complex the thought is, the longer the sentence it is and certainly the more careful we then ought to be as to how to deliver it so that it won't confuse the hearer.

To avoid confusing the person we're having a conversation with, we break down the sentence into several chunks (or thought groups if applicable) using our voice so that the hearer can easily process it. So it would be safe to say that intonation is the manner in which we choose to use our voice to express a complete thought. That is known as an "intonation unit".  For example:

A:I didn't tell you to go argue with him, I didn't tell you to go fight with him and I certainly didn't tell you to go smash his stereo! I just told you to go talk to him!

Okay, so what is main thought of the sentence above? A is blaming B for overreacting!

In the sentence above, A did three things:

1-Told him what she hadn't told him to do.
2-Told him the worst thing he had done.
3-Reminded him of what she had really asked him to do.

What we're going to see now is how A employed her voice to achieve this.

Pitch Height

There are roughly 4 to 6 different pitch levels but we're going to keep it simple and deal with only 4: Low Pitch, Neutral Pitch, High Pitch and Extra High Pitch. As this seems to be an intense situation where the couple appears to be having an argument, it is natural that the voice pitch reaches the "high" and "extra high" level.  As you can also see, pitch height is one form of sentence stress.  Word stress and sentence stress both create the rhythm of the sentence while pitch height (also referred to as added stress) adds an emotional dimension to it.  So basically, it would be safe to say that sentence stress is a common area between rhythm and voice pitch.  Take a look at the following picture illustrating the pitch height of the sentence.

Pitch Movement

Pitch movement is slightly more complicated than Pitch height as it plays a more subtle role in the delivery of the sentence.  It is truly the key factor in "humanizing" or naturalizing the English speech. With pitch movement, we do the following:

  1. We let others know when we end a thought.
  2. We let others know that we still haven't finished a thought.
  3. We let others know whether we expect them to answer us and how we expect them to do it.
  4. We let others know how we feel.
  5. We use it for persuasion, irony, humor, criticism, bragging, sympathy, flirting etc

There are many other functions we can list, however, for the sake of simplicity, we will stick to these 5 major functions.

Now look at the picture below and observe the pitch movement patterns.  Note that this is only MY interpretation, so it should be only viewed as a rough guide.  (I apologize for the ugly scribbling but it will do for now).

When looking at the picture, focus on 6 things:

  1. The sharp rise and fall type under the auxiliaries [didn't] (Imagine road bumps)
  2. The low-rise type under the verbs [argue] and [fight]
  3. The low-mid rise type under the two [him]s
  4. The low-rise stretching from approximately the last syllable of [certainly] to the first syllable of [stereo]
  5. The scoop fall type followed by a low-rise in [go talk]
  6. The Falling type under [stereo] and the last [him].

Pitch height and movement illustration

Try this: Let's break down the sentence into different versions.

  • Version 1: I didn't tell you to go argue with him.
  • Version 2: I didn't tell you to go argue with him, I just told you to go talk to him.
  • Version 3: I didn't tell you to go argue with him and I didn't tell you to go fight with him, I just told you go talk to him.
  • Version 4: I didn't tell you to go argue with him, I didn't tell you to go fight with and I certainly didn't tell you to go smash his stereo.

Now you read each one of these 4 sentences and pay attention to the music.  Notice how both the pitch height and movement change as we expand the sentence.   That is a very important aspect of intonation.

What is the Music of speech?

It is used to refer to the intonation patterns of someone’s entire speech.  We are not looking at 1 word, phrase, sentence or paragraph but the overall melody of someone's speech.  Let me make this easier to grasp.  Whether you are a teacher or learner, you must have a favorite actor, just close your eyes (or keep them open if it doesn't make a difference) and imagine that actor's face and the way he or she acts.  I'm definitely sure that one of the things that will pop into your head is that actor's speech mannerism (or just the way that actor speaks) and that is the music of his/her speech. Look at the pictures below and see how much you remember of how they speak, that is if you know who they are first.