The musical secret of intonation

Man singing into a microphone
Intonation is like music

Intonation is sometimes described as the music of language. Without it, our voices are flat and lifeless, but with it, even simple language can be funny, memorable or moving.

However, many students have said intonation is one of the most difficult things to learn—you are trying to learn new grammar or vocabulary, and then your teacher is suddenly asking you to use intonation too.   

What exactly is intonation?

Intonation is the rise and fall of your voice, including stress and rhythm patterns. It conveys expressive meaning like surprise or doubt, and it signals if the speaker is making a statement or asking a question.

Intonation is invaluable in keeping a conversation alive. Without it, the listener is quickly lost. Flat intonation makes it seem like you don’t care, while over-using rising intonation shows that you are not confident about what you are saying. The listener might be doubtful of what you are saying. 

Both those problems—a continually flat or rising tone—will probably cause the listener to want to leave the conversation.

How can our voice become a symphony of highs and lows?

Practice is the key. Though it may seem a very difficult task, some time and effort can mean a higher test score and much more engaged listeners.   

To start, the next time you are listening to native English, either in a video or a podcast, ignore the meaning and only listen to the intonation. It will rise and fall, speed up and slow down. Can you hear the music?  

Next, record your voice during a conversation or practice session. Nobody likes listening to recordings of themselves, but I promise it will help. Can you hear a difference in your tone?

If you sound flat, then try this trick: think of a time when you have felt strong emotions. For instance, you can try thinking about the most ghastly experience you have ever had. Link your intonation to the emotion you felt at that time. This should help you to vary the pitch in your voice as you relay the details.

In my case: 

The worst day of my life was when my plane had three aborted landings at a Greek airport! I was so scared, I could not believe what was happening to me! I can still feel the anxiety now. What a day!

Next time you are speaking, keep intonation in mind. Show some emotion and enthusiasm and transform the conversation from a tragedy to an outstanding musical!

flat [adjective]—in this context, flat means without emotion or excitement; boring.
lifeless [adjective]—without life; like a robot.
invaluable [adjective] /in-VAL-u-a-ble/—very, very valuable.
ghastly [adjective]—scary, ugly or terrible.