The Music of English: Stress, Rhythm and Intonation – The Language Professional

The Music of English: Stress, Rhythm and Intonation

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Attribution

Put on your favourite tune while reading this article because today we're talking music. Follow these steps to discover how musical English can be and by the end of this article, you'll be singing to the sweet tune of English!

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Musical beats, rhythm and tune

Ready to rock and roll?

1. Turn on the music above (or play some of your own music).

2. Are you tapping your feet or nodding your head? If not, try doing it now. Go ahead!

3. Look at how you're tapping your feet or nodding your head.

  • Do you see how each tap or nod lasts the same amount of time?
  • You are tapping or nodding to the 'beat' of the music. The beat is even and often comes in groups of four.

4. Now start tapping with your hands and fingers on your table or chair. Just do whatever feels natural.

  • Do you see how your tapping is different now and each tap lasts a different amount of time?
  • You are tapping to the 'rhythm' (pronounced /ˈrɪðəm/) of the music. The rhythm is uneven and happens around the beat.
  • Are any of your taps louder than the others? These are 'stressed sounds' or 'stresses'. Stressed sounds are louder than the other sounds.

5. Now start using your voice. Yes, sing or whistle to the tune! Again, just do what you feel is natural.

  • Notice how your voice goes up and down?
  • This is the 'tune' of the music and is similar to the way we move our voice up and down when speaking English (our 'intonation').

Ok, so let's review those musical words:

beat /bi:t/ n.[c.] - the regular, repeated (and often louder) sound in a line of music.
rhythm /ˈrɪðəm/ n.[s.] - the uneven sounds (often repeated) that happen around the beat.
tune /tjuːn/ n.[s.] - the way the most musical part of music goes up and down in a piece of music (also known as 'the melody').

English has a beat

A musical beat is similar to a 'stress' in spoken English.

stress /stres/ n.[c.] - the sounds that are loudest in a sentence.

Take sentence A:

Sentence A - 'We walked and talked and laughed and smiled'.

Listen. Can you hear where the stresses (the louder sounds) are?

Hopefully you heard this:

Sentence A - 'We walked and talked and laughed and smiled'.

This sentence has 8 words and 4 of these words are stressed.

Notice how the stresses are even in their timing? Well, these stressed words are like musical beats.

Stressed words are the beats of our sentence.

English has rhythm

Now, let's try sentence B:

Sentence B - 'She left her documents in a folder in the office.' 

Perhaps you heard this:

'She left her documents in a folder in the office'.

This sentence has 10 words, but some of the words have more than 1 vowel sound (we call these 'syllables').

syllable /ˈsɪləbl/ n.[c.] - a whole word or a part of a word which only has 1 vowel sound.

There are 14 syllables in total (can you count them?).

Sentence A has 8 syllables (8 words with 1 syllable each) and sentence B has 14 syllables, however, both sentences have 4 stressed syllables.

Which sentence takes longer to say?

It may surprise you that both sentences take pretty much the same length of time to say!

That's because the speed and timing of English is related to where the stressed sounds are in a sentence.

Generally, all the stresses in our sentences are like musical beats. The time between stresses is pretty even. We fit all the other unstressed sounds in between the stresses. If there are a lot of unstressed sounds, we need to speed up to keep in time to the beat.

And if you're wondering what kinds of words are normally stressed? It's normally the 'content words' - the words that carry meaning.

So, nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs ('meeting', 'prepare', 'busy'', 'quickly', etc.) are often stressed. Meanwhile, 'function' words, like articles, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs ('the', 'or', can', etc.) are usually unstressed.

English has a tune

I'm sure you've listened to English speakers and noticed their voices go up and down naturally. This movement in sound is called 'intonation'.

intonation /ˌɪntəʊˈneɪʃən/ n.[u.] - the way your voice goes up and down when speaking.

Although a speaker does this without thinking, there are reasons we communicate in this way. The way we raise or lower our intonation shows the purpose of what we're trying to say.

Listen to these examples and try to match them with their purposes.

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

Did you get them right? Listen again and try to practise speaking with the intonation yourself.

Let's review

Describing music

beat /bi:t/ n.[c.] - the regular, repeated (and often louder) sound in a line of music.
rhythm /ˈrɪðəm/ n.[s.] - the uneven sounds (often repeated) that happen around the beat.
tune /tjuːn/ n.[s.] - the way the most musical part of music goes up and down in a piece of music (also known as 'the melody').

Describing how we speak

stress /stres/ n.[c.] - the sounds that are loudest in a sentence.
syllable /ˈsɪləbl/ n.[c.] - a whole word or a part of a word which only has 1 vowel sound (many syllables create the rhythm of a sentence).
intonation /ˌɪntəʊˈneɪʃən/ n.[u.] - the way your voice goes up and down when speaking.

Did this article get your body moving to the music of English? How so? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

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