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Speech melody or the pitch component of intonation

Speech melody (according to the point of view of the majority of Russian linguists) is one of the components of intonation. So speech melody or the pitch component of intonation is variations in the height of the voice during speech.

Variation in speech melody is an essential component of normal human speech. Indeed, if it’s absent for any reason listeners reject the speech and claim it to be literally inhuman (‘robot-like’). Pitch refers to human perception, i.e. whether one perceives sounds as ‘high’ or ‘low’. The most important physical factor in determining pitch is the frequency (i.e. speed of vibration) of the vocal folds; in general terms, the higher the frequency, the higher the perceived pitch and vice versa.

Pitch changes are considered to be of primary linguistic significance but they should be viewed together with the variations of loudness (that is also one of the components of intonation) because it is clearly not possible to separate the pitch and loudness in creating the effect of accentuation.

Speech melody is commonly described in terms of pitch-levels and pitch-changes.

A pitch-level is a certain height within the voice- range of the speaker. When the term ‘pitch-level’ is applied to the whole utterance, then it means the average height of the voice during the pronunciation of the given utterance. In a narrower sense, pitch-level is associated with some particular point in an utterance, such as, e.g., the beginning and ending points of pronunciation units: syllables, rhythmic groups, intonation-groups. These points, especially in syllables, may coincide in their height, i.e. the syllable is pronounced on a steady, unchanged pitch. If the voice of the speaker at the beginning of the pronunciation unit is higher (or lower) than at its end, there is an effect of a falling (or a rising) pitch change. The height of the voice within a unit may change in two directions: upward and then downward, or vice versa — a Rise-Fall or a Fall-Rise, respectively; sometimes there can be even three changes — Rise-Fall-Rise.


Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine.

Pitch-level is described in terms of three relevant zones, or registers, within the speaker’s voice-range: high, median and low. A low-pitch level is identified within the low zone, a mid level within the median zone and a high pitch-level in the high zone. Each of the zones can be further subdivided, and the number of pitch levels thereby increased: very high and fairly high, mid-high and mid-low, fairly low and very low. In reality there are many more gradations of pitch-height, but they are not all of them significant for perception and can be regarded as irrelevant for linguistic purposes.

The pitch ranges are closely connected with the pitch levels. Variations in pitch range occur within the normal range of the human voice. The pitch range of a whole intonation unit is in fact the interval between the highest-pitched and the lowest-pitched syllables. Three pitch ranges are generally distinguished: normal, wide and narrow:


Normal Wide Narrow (of low, mid,high levels)


The pitch-level plays an important role in marking the degree of semantic prominence attached by the speaker to this or that word or phrase in an utterance. E.g.:

As I expect you’ve heard | they are only admitting emergency cases.

The Conservatives, | who like the proposal, | are pleased.

Pitch-level is also significant for conveying different shades of modal-attitudinal meanings and emotional colouring. E.g.:


Thank you for the compliment. (normal)

Thank you for the compliment. (grim, cool, surly)

It was very boring. (categoric, protesting)

It was very boring. (calm, phlegmatic)

A pitch-change is a feature perceived more easily than a pitch-level. Priority in identification belongs to the direction of the pitch movement, not to the height of the beginning and ending points of the pitch movement. However, significant variations within pitch-changes of the same directional type can be captured and summed up only by distinguishing gradation in the initial and final level of the pitch-change.


Date: 2016-01-03; view: 4923

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