Understanding and practicing English melody and pitch patterns will make you easier to understand and produce clear speech.
You may have heard languages spoken that you can identify even though you can’t speak them. The ability to do this is the result of recognizing the “melody” of the language — more than words. I don’t speak a word of Japanese or Chinese but can identify either language by listening for its melody.
The melody of a language is created by the high or low of your voice, how long or short sounds are held, the loudness of the sound and how sounds combine to create syllables into word meaning — much like music played on a piano. Spoken English has four pitch levels like the musical scale above.
When an English word is spoken, a part of the word stands out and can be heard more clearly than other parts of the word. This standing out part is called the stressed syllable.
The stressed syllable is created by a stronger burst of air coming from your lungs. This causes our pitch to rise and also makes the sound louder. The length of time we sustain the sound is a key feature of melody. This holding on to the sound is called duration. Duration can be long, short or somewhere in-between much like the value of musical notes.
To produce English stress patterns for clear speech, not only is it important to emphasize the stressed syllable but the other syllables in the word need to be unstressed in comparison.
When stressed syllables are made prominent by pronouncing them with a stronger breath of air, raising the pitch, and making the sound longer and louder, they stand out. The not stressed syllable is reduced or weakened, by making it shorter, lowering the pitch and pronouncing it less clearly.
Stressed syllables are presented below in bold, uppercase text.
dis CUS sion MEET ing to DAY ap PROVEPLAN SCHE du le
To reference word stress use www.dictionary.com. Bold face type denotes stronger stress and click on the sound icon to hear the word spoken. The unstressed syllable is often represented by a phonetic symbol called a “schwa” — a backwards, upside down “e.” The sound of the /ə/ is simply “uh” and as unimportant as it may sound, it plays a key role in the contrast between stressed and unstressed syllables. The “schwa” is the most common English vowel sound.
The schwa /ə/ sound is made by relaxing the mouth and quickly saying “uh.” The tongue is lax and doesn’t really do much of anything. /ə/ is not a prominent sound so don’t worry about pronouncing it well. In this case “less is more.”
Consider a word like “today.” Instead of saying “TOO DEI,” English speakers say “tuh DEI” emphasizing the second syllable with a higher pitch, longer duration and clearer pronunciation. The same goes for “approve.” Pronounced “uh PRUV,” it has the same word stress pattern as “today”. Both words use contrasting pitch levels rising from 1 to 3.
The melody of English is created by the stress and unstress of syllables in words as well as contrasting higher and lower pitch levels gliding down at the end of syllables or words. These acoustic patterns are what create English melody and most contribute to clear speech.
But language melody involves more than stressed and unstressed syllables. Word stress also combines with sentence stress to create longer melodies — intonation. In English, we tend to give more importance to words that have more meaning or content such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, negatives (not), question words (how, why, what, when, where) and numbers like the words below:
Discussion— meeting — today — plan— approve— schedule
The words we don’t stress are called function words. English speakers don’t stress words that don’t convey the heart of the message like the following words:
During — the— at — our — we — to — the
Examples of functions words are articles, pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions, helping verbs and relative pronouns (which, that). Function words don’t typically contain important information, but they help provide a grammatical framework for the sentence.
Another way to look at this is to give words numerical values. On a scale of 1 to 10, content words (nouns, verbs, etc.) are rated 8, 9 and 10. Function words are rated 1, 2, 3; they aren’t as important to what is being said but we need them to string words into a sentence.
When you use word stress and intonation patterns, you create the music of English. Linguistic researchers consider melody patterns to be a greater factor in creating clear speech rather than pronouncing each individual sound perfectly. The way your voice rises and falls across pitch levels, holds on to sounds or makes them shorter or longer or louder, as well as the clarity of the stressed syllable sounds will make you easier to be understood and result in clear speech.
DURing the discussion at our meeting today, we plan to approve the schedule.
Using the above sentence, take a few minutes to put these principles into use.
1. Try this sentence raising your pitch on the boldface syllables.
2. Try saying the sentence again lengthening the boldface syllables.
3. Combine directions given in 1 and 2 and make sure you pronounce the sounds in the boldface syllable clearly.
4. Combine the directions in 1, 2, and 3 but work on saying the unstressed syllable (not in bold) faster, at a lower pitch, less clearly.
5. Repeat the sentence, emphasizing the content words and reducing the function words.
6. Record yourself practicing word and sentence stress and play it back.
7. Develop a list of key words and phrases. Repeat 1 to 6.
Native English speakers are accustomed to hearing word stress and intonation patterns that use high and low pitch variation, longer sounds, and contrasts in loudness and clarity. Practicing and applying these English melody patterns will make you easier to be understood and help you produce clear speech so you can communicate confidently and have your message heard.