Want to speak clearly and express your emotions and attitudes through your voice?
Then you need to learn to change your tone and use pitch variation for better stress and intonation in American English.
In short, you need to embrace the power of pitch.
The Role of Pitch in Spoken English
Before we get started, let’s talk about what we mean by the word “pitch.”
Pitch is the highness or lowness of your voice, and it’s incredibly essential in American English.
Have you thought about how you use pitch when speaking English?
If not, that might be one big reason why you don’t sound natural – yet!
We use pitch in order to express our emotions and attitude through a change in our intonation, or the tone of our voice.
We also use pitch in order to express stress, or when we make one syllable of a word l-o-n-g-e-r, LOUDER, and higher in pitch.
Extremely important: don’t forget this – higher in pitch.
A lot of non-native speakers get the longer or the louder – or both – correct, but they struggle to hit that higher pitch.
Why is this?
Well, English has different pitch variation than other languages.
Some languages have more pitch variation than English, and others have less.
Why You Need to Control Your Pitch
To sound more natural in English, you need to be able to control your pitch. Here’s why:
Some people sound a little robotic when speaking because they don’t have a lot of pitch variation in their voice.
Their tone tends to be pretty flat and they sound a little bit mechanical, like a robot.
This is what we call a monotone voice: not expressive, not interesting, not clear.
Non-native English speakers may sound like they have flat pitch because pitch variation is not a big part of the sound of their native language.
Pitch is used for different purposes in each language – and unless you’re a singer, you probably produce pitch unconsciously.
In English, we use pitch variation throughout each and every sentence – both women and men.
(If you listen to native English speaking men, you’ll hear the same variation that you hear in my voice. For clear examples, listen to videos by male comedians like Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Stephen Colbert.)
If you’re not creating this pitch variation in your speech, the person who is listening to you might have trouble understanding you.
Native speakers are expecting to hear this pitch variation, especially on stressed words and stressed syllables.
Beyond speaking clearly, your pitch can influence people’s perceptions of you. Pitch is extremely important for clear communication!
How to Practice Your Pitch
So here’s what you’re going to do: start practicing pitch. No vocal coach needed.
I want you to start thinking about your pitch and how you can use it more effectively.
Let’s start with a quick exercise that I use with my clients to help them identify and practice their own personal pitch variations.
At first, changing your pitch and varying the sound of your voice might feel a little stressful, forced, or even challenging.
This is because you’re not used to doing it, especially if your native language doesn’t have that much pitch variation.
Be sure to practice pitch before or as you continue to go deeper into word stress and intonation and reducing your accent.
You need to start including this pitch variation whenever you’re speaking.
If you’re having trouble with it, or you’re feeling like it’s not possible for you, you need to break out of that mindset and realize that you absolutely can practice your pitch variation.
Let’s get started – it will help to watch my explanation in the above video!
Pitch Practice Exercise
First, think about your baseline pitch.
This is the pitch that you have when your voice is resting.
Use a nonsense sound like “da” and repeat it at your baseline pitch.
Then go a step higher, and repeat the sound “da” one step above your baseline pitch.
Continue to go as high as you can, just to see the possibilities in your voice, and then come back down to your baseline pitch.
You don’t have to go as high as I show you in the video – you just want to be sure you identify a noticeable difference in pitch one and two steps above your baseline.
Next, try going one and two steps below your baseline pitch.
Familiarize yourself with the possibilities of pitch in your own voice.
It should feel natural, not forced.
Even just going one step above and one step below your baseline pitch will help you create a noticeable pitch variation that you can use in order to produce word stress.
Spend 3-5 minutes each day “stretching” your pitch, going a step up and a step down, so that you start noticing how consistently you can vary your pitch.
Controlling Your Pitch for Word Stress
Taking control of your pitch in this way will help make it easier to produce pitch variations when you’re speaking English and working on natural-sounding word stress and intonation.
For example, let’s look at the word “education”: ed-u-CA-tion.
The third syllable is stressed, which means the vowel is longer, louder, and higher in pitch.
You only need to go one step above your baseline pitch to produce noticeable word stress (together with making the syllable longer and louder).
When you start emphasizing those pitch variations, other people can follow what it is you’re trying to say and they’re able to understand which syllables and words you are stressing and emphasizing.
I hope this tip helped you understand why it’s so important to learn how to vary your pitch and how to control your pitch to sound more expressive in American English.
If you’re ready for even more practice, let’s explore your pitch with even more exercises and experiments!
Any questions? Leave a comment below and let me know how you did with the exercise.