Pitch and Intonation When Speaking English – Intonation for Statements, Questions & Thought Groups

Have you noticed how English speakers may finish a statement or a question with their pitch higher at the end?

Other times, you can hear that their pitch falls steeply at the end.

Or perhaps you’ve noticed how slight rises in pitch throughout the sentence help you follow along with their thoughts.

These subtle changes in pitch help us communicate our meaning through intonation.

In this video, we’re going to talk all about pitch and intonation.

You’ll find out how to use different levels of pitch to communicate your meaning clearly.

You’ll learn how to speak with the three main intonation patterns in American English: falling intonation, rising intonation, and non-final intonation.

In other words, you’ll practice changing your pitch throughout your speech, as well as at the end of statements and questions.

As you’ll discover, using these intonation patterns consistently and confidently helps people interpret and understand your meaning.

Let’s get started!


Why Pitch and Intonation Matter When Speaking English

First things first, let’s define what we mean by pitch and intonation.

When it comes to spoken English, pitch is the highness or the lowness of your voice.

We move up and down between these pitch levels throughout our speech.

When it comes to language, intonation is how we change and vary our pitch to communicate meaning.

Intonation actually plays several different roles, such as:

  • helping us interpret and understand different emotions and attitudes;
  • enabling us to decide whether someone’s making a statement or asking a question; or
  • making it easier for us to process and remember what people are saying.

Intonation works together with other elements of speech, such as pace, volume, stress, and emphasis to help us communicate clearly and understand each other.


How to Use Pitch When Speaking English: Four Main Pitch Levels

Now that you understand why pitch and intonation matter, let’s talk about how we use pitch when speaking American English.

We normally speak within four main pitch levels.

We use our baseline pitch when saying unstressed words and syllables.

This is where our pitch naturally rests when saying less important function words like “of,” “by,” “at,” “to.”

It’s also where our voice rests on unstressed syllables, such as the “to” in “today,” the “y” in “ready,” and the “um” and “a” in “umbrella.”

Since we say so many words and syllables at this lower pitch, it should feel comfortable and easy for you.

If you find it hard to hit higher pitch levels, you may be starting with your baseline pitch a little higher than it needs to be.

The next pitch level is one step above our baseline.

When you’re emphasizing key words and syllables, your pitch is going to rise slightly above your baseline pitch.

We use this slightly higher pitch level when we’re stressing words and syllables.

This pitch level should feel comfortable and easy and should sound full, rich, and resonant.

For example, consider how we say “day” of “today,” “read” of “ready,” and “brel” of “umbrella.”

This higher pitch level helps signal the content words, or the words that express the meaning of your sentence.

By moving up and down between pitch levels, we create the natural melody of English.

Moving on and moving up, let’s talk about the pitch level two steps above your baseline.

We rise to this even higher pitch level to emphasize the most important words and ideas.

In this example, listen to how I say “working,” “engineer,” and “years”: I’ve been WORKing as an engiNEER for over ten YEARS.

If you need to review how stress and thought groups work, be sure to check out this video on finding your flow when speaking English.

One word in every sentence is spoken at the highest pitch of all, and it’s often called a focus word.

The pitch level is slightly higher and the stressed syllable is the longest and the loudest.

In normal, neutral statements and questions, the focus word is usually the last content word.

For example, listen to how I say “years” in this example: I’ve been working as an engineer for over ten YEARS.

Finally, we’ll hit our lowest pitch level, one step below the baseline, when we’re speaking with falling intonation at the end of declarative statements and information questions.

We’ll talk all about falling intonation in just a moment.

At times, our pitch will go even higher, and at times, our pitch will go even lower.


Pitch is Relative to You and Your Own Voice

The most important thing to understand is that the pitch you use to communicate clearly is relative to you and your own voice.

The pitch levels available to you in your own voice will be different than mine.

You may have a broader pitch range than I do, or you may have a narrower one.

Your resting or baseline pitch may be higher or lower than mine.

As you work on pitch, stress, and intonation, remember that you want to feel comfortable moving between these four pitch levels:

  • your baseline (unstressed words and syllables);
  • one step above the baseline (stressed syllables);
  • two steps above the baseline (stressed syllables of focus words); and
  • one step below the baseline (falling intonation).

Remember, we’re listening for the differences in pitch levels in your own voice.

So if you can hear them, we can hear them!

If you want to, you can explore your pitch even more with this video.


Falling Intonation for Declarative Statements and Information Questions

Now that you have a solid understanding of pitch in spoken English, let’s talk about intonation.

Let’s get started with falling intonation.

First things first, when do we use falling intonation?

We use falling intonation on declarative statements and information questions.

Declarative statements are normal, neutral sentences that we use all the time.

Information questions are those that request details and start with words like “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “why,” “how,” and all the variations.

Let’s look at how falling intonation works.

Falling intonation is a rise followed by a steep fall in pitch from the stressed syllable of your focus word.

In other words, your pitch rises to its highest level on the most important word of the sentence, and then falls to the end.

Depending on which syllable or which word is stressed, this rise and fall may happen within the same syllable, or you may have a little more time to step down to the end.

Remember that the stressed syllable of the most important word will also be held the longest, so you have a little extra time to do all those fancy tricks with your pitch.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • I’ve been WORKing as an engiNEER for over TEN YEARS. ↘️
  • Let’s TAKE a WALK around the NEIGHborhood. ↘️
  • ReMEMber to BRING an umBRELla. ↘️
  • WHEN would you LIKE to EAT DINner? ↘️
  • How LONG have you been PRACticing YOga? ↘️
  • WHERE did you FIND your KEYS? ↘️

As you can hear, I’m reaching my highest pitch on the focus word, or the last content word of the sentence, and then falling down to the end:

  • YEARS ↘️
  • NEIGHborhood ↘️
  • umBRELla ↘️
  • DINner ↘️
  • YOga ↘️
  • KEYS ↘️

Now you try it:

  • I’ve been WORKing as an engiNEER for over TEN YEARS. ↘️
  • Let’s TAKE a WALK around the NEIGHborhood. ↘️
  • ReMEMber to BRING an umBRELla. ↘️
  • WHEN would you LIKE to EAT DINner? ↘️
  • How LONG have you been PRACticing YOga? ↘️
  • WHERE did you FIND your KEYS? ↘️

Since this is such a common intonation pattern, you want to practice until it starts to feel natural for you.

It seems simple, but it can take time, patience, and practice to master.


Rising Intonation for Yes/No Questions

Now let’s move on to rising intonation. When do we use rising intonation?

We use rising intonation on yes/no questions, or questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no.

Rising intonation is a versatile intonation pattern, as it can also be used in these situations:

  • when asking a statement as a question,
  • when asking for clarification or confirmation, or
  • when expressing uncertainty or doubt.

But let’s take it one step at a time and focus on how rising intonation works.

Rising intonation is a steep rise in pitch from the stressed syllable of your focus word.

In other words, your pitch rises to its highest level on the most important word of the sentence and continues to climb.

Depending on which syllable or which word is stressed, this steep rise can happen within the same syllable, or you may have a little more time to climb up to the end.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Are you CURrently WORKing as an engiNEER? ↗️
  • Do you WANT to TAKE a WALK around the NEIGHborhood? ↗️
  • Did you reMEMber to BRING an umBRELla? ↗️
  • Have you EATen DINner YET? ↗️
  • Are you INterested in PRACticing YOga? ↗️
  • Did you FIND your KEYS? ↗️

As you can hear, I’m reaching my highest pitch on the focus word or the final content word of the sentence, and then continuing to climb to the end.

  • engiNEER? ↗️
  • NEIGHborhood? ↗️
  • umBRELla? ↗️
  • DINner YET? ↗️
  • YOga? ↗️
  • KEYS? ↗️

Now you try it:

  • Are you CURrently WORKing as an engiNEER? ↗️
  • Do you WANT to TAKE a WALK around the NEIGHborhood? ↗️
  • Did you reMEMber to BRING an umBRELla? ↗️
  • Have you EATen DINner YET? ↗️
  • Are you INterested in PRACticing YOga? ↗️
  • Did you FIND your KEYS? ↗️

You may hear a dip or a scoop in pitch before that steep rise.

This gives our voices some space to reach that higher pitch level.


Non-Final Intonation Between Thought Groups and Ideas

Now let’s move on to non-final intonation. When do we use non-final intonation?

We use non-final intonation after thought groups, or between ideas, to signal that we’re not done talking yet.

Non-final intonation signals incomplete statements or unfinished thoughts.

Depending on context, non-final intonation can also be used to express a noncommittal attitude, or to show deference or respect.

Let’s look at how non-final intonation works.

Non-final intonation is a slight rise in pitch from the stressed syllable of a focus word.

In other words, your pitch rises slightly after the most important word of a thought group.

The non-final pitch rise is more gradual than when we use rising intonation, and it can sound like a scoop or a dip in pitch.

Since non-final intonation is regularly used between thought groups, that’s what we’re going to focus on today.

Thought groups are chunks of words that go together.

Grouping words together helps people follow your ideas and keeps them listening when you’re speaking at length.

To separate thought groups, we can pause slightly, use this slight rise in pitch, or both.

This gives you time to breathe, and gives the listener time to process what you’re saying.

Let’s look at some shorter and some longer examples:

  • I’ve been WORKing / ⤴️ as an engiNEER / ⤴️ for over TEN YEARS. ↘️
  • Let’s TAKE a WALK / ⤴️ around the NEIGHborhood. ↘️
  • WHEN would you LIKE / ⤴️ to EAT DINner? ↘️
  • WHERE did you FIND / ⤴️ your KEYS? ↘️
  • Did you reMEMber / ⤴️ to BRING an umBRELla?
  • Are you INterested / ⤴️ in PRACticing YOga?

After each thought group, you can hear a slight rise in pitch and a very brief pause to package these words together.

Now you try it: I’ve been working as an engineer for over 10 years.

  • I’ve been WORKing / ⤴️ as an engiNEER / ⤴️ for over TEN YEARS. ↘️
  • Let’s TAKE a WALK / ⤴️ around the NEIGHborhood. ↘️
  • WHEN would you LIKE / ⤴️ to EAT DINner? ↘️
  • WHERE did you FIND / ⤴️ your KEYS? ↘️
  • Did you reMEMber / ⤴️ to BRING an umBRELla? ↗️
  • Are you INterested / ⤴️ in PRACticing YOga? ↗️

Now let’s look at some longer examples. Sometimes we use short, simple sentences, and sometimes we use longer, more complex ones.

  • I’ve been WORKing / ⤴️ as an engiNEER / ⤴️ for over TEN YEARS, / ⤴️ but I’m READy / ⤴️ for a NEW CHALlenge. ↘️
  • When you FEEL FRUStrated, / ⤴️ it HELPS to TAKE a WALK / ⤴️ around the NEIGHborhood / ⤴️ to CLEAR your MIND. ↘️
  • Even though it’s SUNny OUT /⤴️ RIGHT NOW, /⤴️ the FOREcast / ⤴️ CALLS for RAIN, / ⤴️ so reMEMber / ⤴️ to BRING an umBRELla. ↘️

Can you hear how non-final intonation holds your interest until the end of the sentence?

Non-final intonation is most important when you’re speaking at length because it helps people process these ideas.

Now you try it:

  • I’ve been WORKing / ⤴️ as an engiNEER / ⤴️ for over TEN YEARS, / ⤴️ but I’m READy / ⤴️ for a NEW CHALlenge. ↘️
  • When you FEEL FRUStrated, / ⤴️ it HELPS to TAKE a WALK / ⤴️ around the NEIGHborhood / ⤴️ to CLEAR your MIND. ↘️
  • Even though it’s SUNny OUT /⤴️ RIGHT NOW, /⤴️ the FOREcast / ⤴️ CALLS for RAIN, / ⤴️ so reMEMber / ⤴️ to BRING an umBRELla. ↘️

Ideas for Practicing Intonation

Now that you understand the three main intonation patterns in American English, it’s time to practice.

Listen to how people finish their statements and questions, and see if you can notice rises and falls in pitch.

Pay attention to how people hold your attention with their voice, even when they’re speaking for quite a while.

Of course, you need to start experimenting with these intonation patterns when you’re speaking English.

Chances are you have a few recordings of yourself speaking English, such as voice chats or Zoom calls.

Write down what you said and figure out how to break these ideas into thought groups.

Decide where to use non-final intonation, and whether to rise or fall at the end.

Practicing with your own words and things you would actually say can help these intonation patterns stick in your mind.

If you want more practice with pitch and intonation, consider joining my intonation course. Intonation Clinic will help you understand how to use your voice to communicate your meaning through pitch and intonation.

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