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

The Music of English: Stress, Rhythm and Intonation



​​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!


​Musical beats, rhythm and tune

Alright, ready to rock and roll?

1. Click and play the music above (or play a tune of your own).

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'​).
English has a beat

​Take 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:

'We walked and talked and laughed and smiled'.

This sentence has eight words and four of them are stressed.

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

English has rhythm

​Now, let's try sentence B:

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

​Perhaps you heard this:

'​She ​left ​her ​doc​uments in a ​fol​der in the ​off​ice​​​​​​​​​​​​'.

​This sentence has ten words, but some of the words have more than one sound (we call them 'syllables'). There are fourteen syllables in total (can you count them?).

Sentence A has eight syllables (eight words with one syllable each) and sentence B has fourteen syllables, however, both sentences have four 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.

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.​​​








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

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

​And if you think your friends would enjoy the article, share it by clicking the Share icon to the left (mobile) or below (desktop).