In Music & Accent-Part 1-Transitioning between Sounds, I discussed how learning to adjust your accent is very similar to learning to play an instrument. I focused on how to create smooth transitions using a technique commonly applied to music studies. This posting discusses rhythm and musicality. When talking of music, we use terms such as dynamics, melody and lyricism to describe this. In language, we refer to stress, pitch, volume, phrasing and intonation.

Every language has its own music. Without understanding it, we can often identify a language or language group by the sounds, of course, but especially by the way the voice goes up and down and where the stress falls. This musicality, even more than individual sounds, is what people attune themselves to. With a native-like musicality, the listener tends to feel more comfortable and in “familiar territory.”

This musicality is also what gives meaning to the words you use. We may hear a word expressed in a variety of ways, representing a variety of meanings. For example, the word “yes” can be said in such a way as to imply neutral acceptance, excitement, resistance, resignation or the desire for confirmation.

There are a number of linguistic aspects that influence meaning but here are five key points:

STRESS: English is a stress-based language. Stress patterns occur in individual words – called syllable stress – and in sentences – referred to as sentence stress. Stressed syllables and words tend to differ from unstressed syllables and words in four ways:

  • They sound louder.
  • They are usually longer.
  • They have clearer vowels.
  • They have a higher pitch relative to the surrounding words.

PITCH: This refers to the height of a sound. Musical pitch changes as it goes higher and lower, creating the melody. Pitch can show the importance of a particular syllable or word (when used as part of intonation.) It can also be highly influenced by emotional state.

VOLUME: Referring to how loudly we speak, volume is integral to stress and also highly influenced by emotional state. The amount of volume which is acceptable in any particular situation is generally dictated by cultural expectations.

PHRASING: English is broken into thought groups. We tend to take a pause after a thought group but not during. This allows the listener to understand the relationship between the words because we understand that those words all belong to one idea. Taking a pause in the wrong place could change the meaning.

INTONATION: This refers to a combination of stress, pitch and volume, which moves according to phrasing. In North American English we have a common intonation pattern which is wave-like, jumping up on the first stressed word in a phrase and stepping down on the following stressed words within the same phrase. This is a form of neutral intonation.

Here are some other intonation patterns:

A sentence ending with upward intonation generally expresses the desire for confirmation, such as a yes-no question. An intonation pattern we refer to as “uptalk” uses this pattern repeatedly. Please read Intonation-Uptalk for more about this.

Downward intonation at the end of a sentence signifies either completion of an idea or a request for information.

In general, an increased up-down movement portrays stronger emotion. Softer emotions, or neutral speech, tend to be expressed with softer waves. So the way you say “sit down” can be said as an invitation (using a soft curve) or an order (using a sharp drop in pitch.)


How you use these musical influences in speech is often critical to helping others understand your feelings and intentions. At times, it may also be cause for misunderstanding.

While improving the accuracy of individual consonants and vowels is important, don’t overlook the musicality of a language. Learn to listen to pitch and volume changes, phrasing and intonation. Imitate voices that you like (CBC radio has some great ones.) Use audio recording to model stress and intonation patterns. Improving these aspects of speech may take time but think of it as a rhythm that gets into you. Allow it to take hold!