The Music of Language

Spoken English has a musical quality which we call intonation.  Intonation is the rising and falling pitch which gives additional meaning to the words spoken.  Just as the notes of a song go up and down, our pitch rises and falls as we speak. In some ways intonation is the punctuation of spoken language.

In English intonation can indicate emotions such as surprise, anger, sarcasm, disbelief, and teasing. It tells the listener if they are hearing a statement or a question.

How you say something can be as important as what you say.

As a listener it is important to understand intonation to get the full meaning of the utterance.

As a speaker, the correct use of intonation will help you be understood.

 Here are some examples of intonation

 We use falling intonation or lower our pitch in:


I like apples.↓

My name is Holly.↓

It is hot today.↓


Where are you going?↓

Why did he go home?↓

What time is it?↓

When does it start?↓

 We use rising intonation or raise our pitch in:


Are you hungry?↑

Did you like the book?↑

Can we go home now?↑


You want to go home?↑

You don’t like ice cream?↑

She’s still asleep?↑

 Sometimes we fall or rise in questions like these:

They wanted French fries,↓ didn’t they?↑ (rising at end means you are not sure)

They wanted French fires,↓ didn’t they?↓ (falling at end means you just want confirmation)

Practice saying all the example sentences above and see how different they sound if you make your voice rise when it should fall or fall when it should rise.

Listen for the music of the English language as you talk to friends and co-workers.  Try to imitate them and soon you’ll be making music, too!

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