Ever asked yourself one of these questions about pitch?

  • I don’t understand how to use pitch. Why can’t I hear pitch in my own voice?
  • What’s the difference between pitch and volume? Are they the same thing? They sound like it.
  • How do you use pitch to communicate meaning in English?
  • What does tone mean in English? Is English a tonal language?
  • What’s the difference between pitch, stress, and intonation? Some people talk about them as if they’re the same thing.

As you probably know by now, I talk a lot about how to use pitch, intonation, and your voice here on my website and my YouTube channel.

Subtle changes in how you use your voice can affect how clearly you communicate your meaning in American English.

In this video, I’m going to answer the most common questions you ask me about pitch, stress, tone, and intonation. Let’s get started!


How We Use Pitch: Word Stress, Sentence Stress, and Intonation

Let’s start with the basics. What is pitch anyway?

When we’re talking about languages, pitch is the highness or the lowness of your voice.

In other words, it’s the frequency of the sound waves that you produce when you’re speaking.

We often think about pitch when we’re talking about singing or playing a musical instrument, but it’s also extremely important when you’re speaking English.

In American English, we use changes in pitch to emphasize key words through word and sentence stress.

By stepping up to a higher pitch, we emphasize a certain syllable of a word.

Pitch is one of the key elements that you need in order to emphasize a syllable with word stress.

Native English speakers are listening for this higher pitch in order to hear you pronounce a word correctly.

Listen to how I say these common words in the video:

  • NOTEbook,
  • communiCAtion
  • toDAY
  • LIsten
  • geOgraphy

Can you hear when my voice steps up to a higher pitch?

We also use pitch to highlight the most important words in the entire sentence.

In other words, we focus attention on the key words using our pitch.

We stress or emphasize the key syllable of these words in order to indicate that they’re the most important ones.

When we move up and down between these pitch levels when speaking, we create the natural melody of English.

I like to think of the spoken melody of English in terms of waves. 🌊

We rise up to a higher pitch ↗️ and then fall afterwards ↘️, rise up to a higher pitch ↗️ and then fall afterwards ↘️, rise up to a higher pitch ↗️ and then fall afterwards ↘️.

You can hear this up and down, this rise and fall in pitch, between stressed syllables of stressed words, and unstressed or reduced syllables that seem to become a little less obvious.

If you listen closely, you can hear a consistent rise and fall in pitch, kind of like your breathing or watching waves crash on the beach. 🏖️

We also use changes in pitch to communicate meaning through intonation.

We’ll talk more about intonation and tone of voice in just a moment, so stay tuned.


Find Your Pitch in American English

At this point, you may be wondering how to find your pitch, how to use pitch in your voice.

You may not be able to hear pitch changes in your voice.

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

The pitch levels available to you in your own voice will be different than the ones that I can use.

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

That’s why it’s so important that you explore what’s possible for you in your own voice, that you play around with pitch using the exercises I’m going to recommend, so that you understand what you can do with your voice.


Four Pitch Levels in American English

Before we start experimenting with pitch using some of my favorite pitch exercises, I want to remind you that we generally speak within four main pitch levels in English.

Check out this clip from Find Your Voice in American English: Vocal Exercises for Non-Native English Speakers where I explain the four main pitch levels.

In American English, we normally speak within four main pitch levels.

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

When you’re speaking English, you want to feel comfortable moving up and down within these four pitch levels.

Your baseline pitch is where your voice naturally rests.

You’re going to come down to your baseline pitch when you’re saying words and syllables that don’t really matter.

These are what we call unstressed words and syllables.

Think about how you may say function words like “of,” “at,” “by,” “to.”

As you can hear, those words are said at a slightly lower pitch. This is your baseline pitch.

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

At this pitch level, your voice should have richness, depth, and fullness.

It should sound really nice and feel really comfortable and really natural.

When you’re emphasizing the most important words in the sentence, your pitch is going to hit two steps above your baseline.

In other words, you’ll hit the highest pitch level when saying the most important words in a thought group or sentence.

You’ll hit the lowest pitch level at the end of a declarative sentence when using falling intonation. That will be one step below your baseline.


Explore Your Pitch: Practice with Pitch Exercises

Now that you understand the relationship between the different pitch levels that we use to express meaning in English, let’s explore your pitch.

As I mentioned in the video, it’s important to identify your baseline pitch.

This is the pitch where your voice naturally rests.

Your baseline pitch should feel comfortable for you.

Watch the video to hear what my baseline pitch sounds like.

This is the pitch I’m going to use on unstressed words and syllables.

I can comfortably speak at my baseline pitch because it’s where my voice naturally rests.

Now take a moment and try to find your baseline pitch by repeating the sound “la”: la la la la la la la.

It may be higher or lower than what you’re used to in your native language.

Just experiment until you can find it.

Now we’re going to practice pitch steps up and down.

(This is the same exercise that I teach in The Power of Pitch, so if you need more practice, you can check it out.)

As I mentioned, we just need to move one and two steps above the baseline pitch.

Let’s start at the baseline and repeat the sound “la”: la la la la la la la la.

Now let’s shift our pitch up one step: la la la la la la la.

It should be a natural move one step above the baseline.

Now let’s move one more step above the baseline: la la la la la la la.

You can start at the baseline and move up one step at a time so that you can hear the gradual increase.

As you can hear, there’s a noticeable difference between my baseline, one step above and two steps above.

Can you hear the difference in your own voice?

Now let’s move back down to the baseline from this higher pitch, stepping down while repeating the sound “la”: la la la la la la la.

Now let’s practice moving one step below the baseline: la la la la la la la.

It can be a little challenging to drop one step below your baseline, but remember we only drop below the baseline using falling intonation.

We only hit that bottom pitch level when we are finishing a statement.

We don’t speak for extended periods of time at that step below the baseline.

As you explore your pitch, remember that the most important thing is to be able to noticeably show a difference between your baseline, one step above, two steps above and one step below.

To review:

  • We use our baseline pitch when we’re saying unstressed words or syllables.
  • We use one step above our baseline when we’re stressing words and syllables.
  • We use two steps above the baseline for the stressed syllable in the most important word in a sentence or a thought group.
  • We also use two steps above the baseline when we’re using rising intonation.
  • We use one step below the baseline when we’re using falling intonation.

For more practice on stress and intonation, check out these resources:


Play Around with Your Voice: Practice Pitch Slides

At this point you may be saying, “Kim, I understand what you’re talking about with regards to pitch, but I can’t do it myself. I can’t hear pitch in my own voice.”

This is why I encourage you to play around with your pitch using pitch slides.

In order to practice pitch slides, we’re going to say a vowel sound and then hold that sound while sliding our pitch up and down.

It may feel a little silly, but it will definitely help you understand how much pitch is available to you in your voice.

Let’s start with the long vowel sound /i/. We’re going to slide our pitch up and down from low to high, high to low: eeee ↗️ , eeee ↘️, eeee ↗️ , eeee ↘️, eeee ↗️ , eeee ↘️, eeee ↗️ , eeee ↘️.

Now let’s try it with the long vowel sound /oʊ/: oooo ↗️, oooo ↘️, oooo ↗️, oooo ↘️, oooo ↗️, oooo ↘️, oooo ↗️, oooo ↘️.

Now let’s try it with the long vowel sound /u/: uuuu ↗️, uuuu ↘️, uuuu ↗️, uuuu ↘️, uuuu ↗️, uuuu ↘️, uuuu ↗️, uuuu ↘️.

How do you feel about your pitch now?

You probably found out that you can actually hit a number of pitch levels with your voice, not just the four we practiced a moment ago.


Pitch Variation and Vocal Variety

As you continue to explore your voice, you’re going to want to have more pitch variation and more variety in how you use your voice.

This will help you sound more interesting, engaging, and expressive when you’re speaking!

In my experience, many non-native speakers tend to move between two pitch levels.

To sound more expressive and interesting, you want to include more variety in your speech.

At the very least, you want to feel comfortable moving within the four main pitch levels.

However, to express a wider range of emotions including excitement, enthusiasm, interest, and curiosity, it’s helpful to move beyond these four pitch levels.

When you only speak within one or two pitch levels, you may start to sound monotonous.

Listen to the video to hear what I mean: It’s nice to finally meet you.

You can definitely hear that there’s two levels there, but my voice doesn’t sound as expressive.

When you use a wider pitch range, your voice expresses how you feel.

Listen to hear a more expressive version: It’s so nice to finally meet you!

Can you hear the difference?


Difference Between Pitch and Volume in English

Now let’s move on and talk about the difference between pitch and volume.

When you’re exploring your pitch, you may start thinking that pitch seems to be the same thing as volume.

Volume is the loudness or the softness of your voice.

The reason pitch and volume are often confused is that they work together to create meaning.

When we stress a syllable in English, we make it longer, louder, and higher in pitch.

You’ll hear an increase in volume at the same time that you’ll hear a higher pitch level.

It may also be confusing if you’re used to using volume to stress or emphasize words in your native language.

If it’s easier for you to increase your volume than to increase your pitch, you may be substituting this louder sound when you’re stressing words.

Beyond that, you might find yourself dropping your pitch when you’re speaking quietly.

When you speak at a higher pitch level, your voice may be more obvious, it may draw more attention.

So if you’re trying to be quieter, you might drop down to a lower pitch.

Or you may naturally increase your volume and your pitch at the same time when you’re excited or you’re trying to project your voice.


Practice Volume with This Exercise

Let’s try to understand volume with this exercise.

Let’s try saying “The weather is great today” while imagining these situations.

First, try saying “The weather is great today” to someone who’s sitting across a table from you.

They’re just a couple of feet away from you or a meter; they can hear you without extra volume.

Try it: The weather is great today. The weather is great today. The weather is great today.

Now try saying “The weather is great today” to someone across the room.

Say it again: The weather is great today. The weather is great today. The weather is great today.

Hopefully you can hear how your voice got a little bit louder.

You may also notice a slight increase in pitch. It may help you project your voice a little more.

Now, let’s say “The weather is great today” to someone in a library.

Remember, you need to be quiet in a library, so you need to lower your volume.

Try it again: The weather is great today. The weather is great today. The weather is great today.

As you can hear, when you start whispering, your volume also falls.

Now let’s try saying the weather is great today to someone across a stadium or standing on a different mountain.

One more time, extra loud: The weather is great today. The weather is great today. The weather is great today.

You can definitely hear a difference when you start shouting to someone who’s far away!

As you can hear, pitch and volume work together when we stress words and syllables, but they’re not the same thing.

Because volume is commonly used to emphasize words in languages besides English, it’s easy to get confused.


Tone and Tone of Voice in American English

Let’s talk about the meaning of the word “tone” in English.

When you hear people talk about the word “tone” when they’re speaking English, they’re usually referring to your tone of voice.

In other words, “tone” is the short way to talk about your tone of voice.

If you hear someone say, “I don’t like your tone,” they’re referring to the emotion or the attitude that’s being expressed through your tone of voice or your intonation.

We often use the words “tone,” “tone of voice,” and “intonation” interchangeably.

“Tone” and “tone of voice” are more common to hear in everyday conversations.

“Intonation” is a more specific technical term that we use when we’re talking about improving your voice, or improving how you play a musical instrument.

“Tone” can also mean a vocal or musical sound, as well as the quality of that sound when we’re talking about music.

Remember, if you hear someone mention your tone or your tone of voice, and they’re not talking about playing a musical instrument, they’re probably referring to your intonation, or the meaning that you’re expressing through rises and falls in pitch.


Is English a tonal language?

Now that you understand how we use the word tone in everyday speech, let’s talk about whether English is a tonal language.

When people hear us mention the word “tone,” they get confused. They think that English is a tonal language.

It’s important to understand that English is not a tonal language.

In a tonal language, the way you enter or exit a sound can change its meaning.

That means one sound can have several different meanings, depending on the way pitch changes as you enter the sound, leave the sound or even during the sound.

In other words, in a tonal language, words can have different tones, different qualities.

In American English, tone or intonation changes throughout an entire sentence.

Pitch changes in English happen across an entire sentence, an entire thought group, an entire utterance.

We interpret your tone or your intonation over the entire sentence, not just on a particular word.

The rise and fall throughout the entire sentence as well as any pitch changes communicate meaning.

In other words, pitch changes in English affect the entire sentence, not just the word.

You’ll hear rises in pitch to a certain word and then from a certain word.

But how you enter and exit the syllable doesn’t change the meaning.

It’s how the pitch rises and falls in comparison to the rest of the words in the sentence.


How to Use Pitch Naturally in American English

As I mentioned a moment ago, in order to use pitch naturally, you want to remember that your pitch rises and falls like a wave.

We gently climb up to stressed syllables, and then fall down afterwards.

You’ll hear this natural melody throughout neutral statements and questions.

We can change the meaning of a sentence by emphasizing one word more than the others or by changing the rise and fall on an entire idea.

Let’s look at a few examples so you can hear what I mean.


How to Change Meaning by Changing Stress

First, let’s look at a neutral statement:

He lost his keys at the store.

In a normal, neutral sentence, you can hear that rise and fall between stressed syllables of stressed words.

He LOST his KEYS at the STORE.

Can you hear that wave?

By changing our pitch on a certain word, we can change the meaning of the sentence.

For example, I might stress “he” more than the rest of the sentence:

HE lost his keys at the store.

When I increase my pitch on the word “he,” which wouldn’t normally be stressed with so much emphasis, I change the meaning.

If I say “He lost his keys at the store,” I may be clarifying.

Maybe the other person misunderstood me and they thought somebody else lost their keys, or maybe they thought I was talking about myself.

HE lost his keys at the store.

We can also emphasize the verb:

He LOST his keys at the store.

We may choose to stress the verb for clarity.

Maybe the other person thought he forgot his keys at the store or he found his keys at the store.

By emphasizing the word “lost,” we prioritize this word above the rest of the sentence.

He LOST his keys at the store.

When you stress a word that wouldn’t normally receive the most stress and emphasis, it draws extra attention to that word.

We do this using our pitch!

Let’s try one more example.

He lost his KEYS at the store.

By emphasizing “keys” more than the rest of the other words, I may be clarifying.

Maybe the other person didn’t hear me, they thought I said “wallet,” or maybe I just want to emphasize the word “keys” because that’s something that’s not good to lose.

He lost his KEYS at the store.


How to Change Meaning by Changing Intonation

Now let’s look at how a change of pitch at the end of a statement or question can change the meaning.

When we say normal, neutral statements, our voice will fall at the end. ↘️ For example:

They’re not ready. ↘️

In this sentence, I’m just stating a fact:

They’re not ready. ↘️

However, if I include a rise in pitch at the end of the sentence, I change its meaning. ↗️

They’re not ready? ↗️

By adding this rise in pitch, I’m asking a question.

I may need the other person to confirm what they just told me or I may be a little bit surprised.

They’re not ready? ↗️

If I want to express shock or surprise, my pitch will go even higher.

They’re not ready?! ↗️

As you can see, an obvious change in pitch can completely change the meaning of the sentence.

It helps us express additional emotions and attitudes.

Let’s try one more example. Here’s a normal, neutral statement:

That sounds like a good idea. ↘️

By saying this statement with falling intonation at the end, I’m showing confidence. I believe this sounds like a good idea.

That sounds like a good idea. ↘️

However, if I rise in pitch at the end of the sentence, I can change the meaning.

That sounds like a good idea? ↗️

As you can hear, I’m asking this statement as a question and I’m suggesting that I don’t think it sounds like a good idea.

That sounds like a good idea? ↗️

You can also say this with more tentative intonation and show uncertainty.

That sounds like a good idea…

As you can hear, I’m not speaking with confidence. I’m showing that I’m not that sure.

That sounds like a good idea…


Pitch, Stress, and Intonation in American English

Now that we’ve looked at these examples, I hope you can hear how changes in pitch can affect the meaning of the entire sentence.

As we’ve discussed, pitch plays an important role in word and sentence stress as well as intonation.

People often confuse stress and intonation because they work together.

You need to consistently stress words so that your intonation makes sense.

We use changes in pitch for word stress, sentence stress, and focus word stress.

That’s when we emphasize one word more than the others in order to change the meaning.

Intonation is how we change our pitch across sentences, phrases, and thought groups in order to communicate meaning and our emotions and attitudes.

These rises and falls in pitch happen after stressed syllables.


Your Turn

Now that you’ve had a chance to explore your pitch and how we use pitch to communicate meaning in American English, I’d love to hear from you!

Have you been able to find your pitch range using these exercises?

Can you tell the difference between pitch and volume?

Are there any questions about pitch, stress, and intonation you’d like me to answer in a future video?

Leave a comment and let me know.

If you’d like a deeper understanding of pitch and intonation, be sure to check out the Intonation Clinic.

Intonation Clinic will help you get even more control over how you use your voice in American English.

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