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Pitch Exercises: Improve Your Stress and Intonation in American English with Steps and Glides

Have you practiced your pitch recently? If not, I encourage you to get started with these pitch exercises now so that you can be more easily understood by native English speakers.

Learning to change and vary your pitch will help you:

  • pronounce words more accurately;
  • call attention to the most important words and ideas in your speech; and
  • be able to express different emotions and attitudes through intonation.
If you’re completely new to the concept of pitch, please be sure to check out The Power of Pitch, where I explain a simple exercise that will help you stretch your vocal cords and be able to get started working on your pitch.

If you’re ready to go deeper, let’s get started with some pitch exercises!

In this article and video, we’re going to discuss two types of pitch changes that you’re going to need to master in order to sound more like an American: steps and glides.

Depending on the way words and syllables are linked together in natural speech, you may need to step up and down, or you may need to glide up and down.


Understanding Steps Up and Down in Pitch

A step is an abrupt, noticeable rise or drop from one pitch to another.

Let’s look at a few examples:

NOTE-book: You notice I’m stepping down from a higher pitch to a baseline pitch.

Let’s try another: sep-TEM-ber. In this example, we’re stepping up to the second syllable, which is stressed: sepTEMber.

A very, very common phrase I use is “United States”: u-ni-ted STATES. As you notice, we’re stepping up to “states.”

A common verb we can use when discussing pitch is the verb “contrast”: conTRAST. As you can hear in the video, I’m stepping up from a lower pitch to a higher pitch in order to stress the word correctly.

Another common longer word that I often use is “communication”: com-mu-ni-CA-tion. I’m stepping up to the syllable “ca.”

You’ll also hear some steps in phrases as well as in entire sentences.

For example, in the phrase “tables and chairs,” I’m stepping up to “chairs”: ta-bles and CHAIRS.


Understanding Pitch Glides

Now, let’s talk about pitch glides. A pitch glide happens when we need to show a change in tone on a particular syllable within a word.

Sometimes we change our pitch noticeably on simple, short, one syllable words or vowel sounds, or we may glide between different tones for effect, or we may need to change our pitch on words that are linked together because of connected speech.

You’ll also notice gliding between vowels and consonant sounds, depending on how these words are linked together.

Here are some examples of glides that help express different emotions and attitudes in English:

  • Oh?
  • Oh.
  • Really?
  • Really.
  • Okay?
  • Okay.
  • Today?
  • Today.
  • What?
  • What?!
  • Huh?
  • Huh.
  • Hmm?
  • Hmm.

(Be sure to watch the video to understand the difference in sound!)

As you can hear, learning how to glide between one pitch to another pitch while maintaining that same sound or vowel is really essential to communicating what you mean through your intonation.

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Why You May Need to Change Your Pitch in English

Let’s talk about a few reasons you may change your pitch in order to express different emotions and attitudes.

You may glide up in order to ask a question, or you may glide down in order to finish a statement.

You may have a rise in pitch because you’re questioning someone or double-checking what you heard.

You may show excitement and curiosity by a lot of variation in your pitch throughout the sentence: it’s happy intonation!

Some people have certain patterns that you can hear through their pitch.

For example, I’m very expressive so I use a lot of different pitch variations while I’m speaking. The idea is that it keeps you listening!

Some people may use less pitch variation in order to show disappointment, disapproval, or annoyance.

Be sure to check out my free five-day Intonation Challenge and start learning how to change your pitch and express your meaning through your tone of voice.

Practice Exercises for Steps in Pitch

Now, let’s talk about some practice exercises you can use in order to feel more confident changing your pitch by gliding up and down or stepping up and down.

In order to practice steps between different levels of pitch, I encourage you to start working with nonsense sounds like “da-da” or “lo-lo” or any combination of consonants and vowels that you choose.

In fact, this can be a great way to combine your practice of pitch while also working on troublesome consonants or vowel sounds.

In the end, they all work together, so it’s a good idea to challenge yourself to improve some sounds that you find a little bit difficult.

To get started practicing the different steps up and down between pitch, think about stress patterns.

Most of the time when you have a rise in pitch, it’s because you’re stressing a certain syllable within a certain word.

It’s more effective to practice these patterns so that when you learn a new word, you can associate it with this particular stress pattern.

For example, let’s practice two-syllable words that are stressed on the first syllable:

  • DA-da, DA-da, DA-da
  • LO-lo, LO-lo, LO-lo.

As you can hear in the video, I’m starting at a higher pitch and stepping down to a lower pitch.

Now let’s look at two-syllable words that are stressed on the second syllable:

  • re-RE, re-RE, re-RE.
  • soo-SOO, soo-SOO, soo-SOO.

As you notice in the video, I’m stepping up from a lower pitch to a higher pitch.

Now let’s look at a few examples of three syllable words. Once again, these words may be stressed on the first, second, or third syllable. It really depends on the word.

Let’s practice:

  • DA-da-da, DA-da-da, DA-da-da
  • lo-LO-lo, lo-LO-lo, lo-LO-lo
  • re-re-RE, re-re-RE, re-re-RE

I hope your ear is starting to detect these stress patterns and you’re able to associate them with words you may actually use in everyday speech.

Like I said, you can combine any consonant and vowel sounds in order to practice stepping up and down, depending on the way a word would be stressed.

Although this video is specifically focused on practicing pitch, I want you to remember that you’re going to lengthen the vowel sound on a stressed syllable in addition to making it higher in pitch.

It’s helpful to practice that rhythm in order to make it easier when you’re practicing your word and sentence stress.

When you feel more comfortable changing your pitch on these nonsense sounds, then you can look for a word list of two- and three-syllable words stressed on different syllables and start practicing with those.

You want to create pitch variation between stressed and unstressed or reduced syllables.

For more detailed information on word stress and why it matters, be sure to check out my detailed article and video on word stress in American English or get started with the Stress Simplified program.

Practicing Steps in Pitch in Phrases

Once you feel more confident creating these steps, it’s time to practice stress in phrases. We have pitch variations in phrases that follow predictable stress patterns.

For example, consider these common expressions:

  • ins and outs
  • ups and downs
  • right and wrong
  • United States, and
  • European Union.

As you can hear, there is a noticeable step from a lower pitch to a higher pitch on the final word in each of those phrases.

Because it’s so important to get your pitch right in order to express yourself clearly in English, be sure to look for these patterns and practice them.

For more examples of stress in phrases, read the article and watch the video on how to stress phrases with “and.” Of course, I cover all of these stress patterns in depth in the Stress Simplified program.

Practice Exercises for Pitch Glides

In order to practice gliding up and down in pitch. I encourage you to combine this practice with working on your vowel sounds.

Like I mentioned earlier, the vowel sound is where the pitch changes happen on stressed syllables.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Ahh?
  • Ahh.
  • Ohh?
  • Ohh.
  • Ooh?
  • Ooh.
  • iiii?
  • iiii.
  • Uhh?
  • Uhh.

Once you feel more confident gliding up and down on various vowel sounds, then it’s time to practice with words.

I gave a few examples earlier in this article and video, but let’s practice a few more now:

  • Okay?
  • Okay.
  • No?
  • No.
  • About?
  • About.
  • Today?
  • Today.
  • Do?
  • Do.
  • Right?
  • Right.

These exercises will help you increase your sensitivity to how we use pitch in order to communicate our meaning and express different emotions and attitudes through intonation.

You’ll start hearing these pitch changes and pitch variations and soon be able to start doing them yourself!

For more stress and intonation practice, please be sure to check out my articles and videos on intonation patterns in American English. Start with how to pronounce “How are you?” and how to say “I don’t know.”.

Your Turn

Now it’s your turn! In the comments, let me know how pitch is used in your native language. What do you find easy or difficult about pitch in American English?

I would love to hear how these exercises have helped you, so be sure to check back in and leave a comment.

If these exercises have motivated you to work on your stress and intonation, consider my stress and intonation programs. 30 Days of Intonation will help you practice different intonation patterns on 30 common words, phrases, and expressions. Stress Simplified will help you master the natural rhythm of English through word and sentence stress and includes detailed drills on stress patterns in words and phrases.

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Intonation Challenge

Learn how to change your tone to express your meaning in English with this five-day email course.

When you sign up for this email course, you'll also receive accent advice and useful resources to help you improve how you sound. You can unsubscribe at any time.

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Thanks for signing up! I'm so excited to connect with you.

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Learn how to use word and sentence stress to speak clearly so that people will definitely understand what you say.

When you sign up for this email course, you'll also receive accent advice and useful resources to help you improve how you sound. You can unsubscribe at any time.

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