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Degrees of pitch rise and conveyed meaning


Degrees of rise

Beginning pitch level

The normal beginning with a prehead (a sentence that does not begin with a stressed word) is pitch level 2, which indicates no marked attitude. If it starts either higher or lower than level 2, attitudinal meaning is involved. If it begins at level 3, the sentence can show a surprise, excitement or insistence. On the other hand, if a sentence with a prehead begins at a lower pitch, at level 1, it can mean indifference, timidity or boredom. Level 1 pitch can also mean that what is to be said is obvious or redundant. For instance,

She is the teacher. (neutrality: information) 

    2 3

She is the teacher. (excitement) 

    3 4

She is the teacher. ( indifference) 

    1 2

This is another example:

I think I am right. (neutrality: simply stating)

2   3-1

I think I am right. (attitude of insistence)

3   4-1

I think I am right. (attitude of timidity)

1   2-1

When pitch does not rise in the content words when it is expected, some type of attitude is betrayed. For example, in the following sentence, ‘said’ is a content word, needing some stress:

She said she got an A. (neutral)

   2 3                   4-1

But if pitch does not rise with ‘said’, the sentence can mean that the speaker does not believe that she got an A. 

She said she got an A. (disbelief)

2                   3-1

In general, a steep pitch change indicates a strong emotion, while a flat intonation, due to little pitch change, indicates a lack of emotion. For example, ‘Great.’ uttered with little pitch change sounds perfunctory, but uttered with a steep pitch change can show enthusiasm.

Great! (perfunctory)


Great! (excited)


When English natives use flat intonation, it signals indifference or apathy. So, flat intonation is often used as a response of indifference to a question, as following examples show:

How was the film? 

It was all right. (Not too bad, not too good)


Where shall we go tonight? 

We may go to the cinema. (I don't care.)



When pitch does not rise at all, with pitch starting low and remaining low, it can sound sarcastic. Being sarcastic means that what is said is the opposite of the literal meaning of the sentence. That is, the intended meaning of the speaker actually is the opposite of what she says. These are examples of sarcastic remarks:

Always a delight when you end up in a subway car with someone singing at the top of their lungs. (annoyed)

I love going to work at 5:45 am on a Saturday (hate)

This dish really could use more salt. (already too salty)

The use of sarcasm is very common in English speech. According to some studies, about a quarter of the time, Americans use “Yeah right” to mean the opposite, that is, to disagree. Detecting sarcasm can be difficult for non-native speakers. One important clue for sarcasm is intonation. When pitch moves the opposite direction of what is expected based on the meaning of the sentence, the speech can be interpreted as a sarcastic remark. For instance, pitch should rise steeply in a sentence meaning excitement. But, if pitch stays flat instead, it is most likely used sarcastically. The following sentences are used sarcastically:

Great ! (sarcasm)


Fantastic. (sarcasm)  


Compare the following pairs of sentences where one has the expected pitch movement and the other has the sarcastic movement:


That’s just what I wanted. (excitement)

        3                     4 -1               

That’s just what I wanted. (sarcasm)


Yeah right (agreement)

  2     3-1 

Yeah right (disagreement)


Yes-no question

Yes-no questions use rising intonation: pitch rises on or after the tonic stress. Rising 

intonation can have different degrees of rise. A gradual rise shows neutrality in emotion, but a steep rise can reveal an emotion. For example, 

     You’re a doctor? (neutral)

        2          3   

Since there is just one stressed syllable in the sentence, the normal pitch rise of the nuclear syllable is at level 3. Of course, pitch keeps rising after the nuclear syllable, but the rise is viewed as an allophone pitch of the preceding pitch. 

Even when there is only one stressed syllable in a sentence, pitch can rise to level 4 to express a surprise, disbelief or excitement. It may also mean that the speaker is asking for a clarification. Precisely which it indicates depends on the context.

You’re a doctor? (surprise or disbelief)

        2         4   

This is another pair of sentences:

      Was that you? (neutral emotion)

    2       3

Was that you? (disbelief)

    2       4

As the examples show, we can add emotion to a question by using different pitch levels.