Prosody: The Song of Speech


Guest Blog by: Dave Palmer, Ph.D.

Smith College

Think of your favorite song. For me, “Hey, Jude” by the Beatles would be a candidate. If you are easily embarrassed, sing it softly to yourself; otherwise belt it out.

Now imagine taking away the music. What you have left is a poem, possibly a lousy one. Recite it out loud, as if you were reading it:

So let it out and let it in, hey Jude, begin
You’re waiting for someone to perform with
And don’t you know that it’s just you, hey Jude, you’ll do
The movement you need is on your shoulder
Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah yeah

Now read your poem in a perfectly flat voice, with no pauses, no rises or falls in intonation, no rhythm, with even inflection on each word. Pace your reading with a metronome at the rate of two words per second.’’’s.…nah.nah.nah.nah…

What have you got now? You have something dreadful. You have speech without prosody.

More than a Thing of Beauty

Of course songs are meant to be sung, and sentences are meant to be spoken with inflection, pauses, and patterns of intonation, that is, with the “music” of speech that we call prosody. Take away the music from a song, and what you have left has lost some of its beauty. Take prosody from speech, and what you have left has lost far more than beauty: It is almost impossible to understand. So prosody serves important verbal functions. We are often even unaware of them, perhaps because we use only a handful of punctuation marks to denote prosody in our writing.

Here are some of the different functions that prosody serves:

1. Subtle variations in tone can betray affect. We say some things with vivacity, other things with a leaden tone:

“Thank you for bringing that sheaf of religious tracts to my door. I will look at them as soon as I get a chance.”

“Yes, I suppose your dog has to poop somewhere.”

Only the dullest ear would miss the suppressed irritation.

2. Stress patterns differentiate words of the same form but different meanings:

Your conduct was abominable, Mr. Palmer; I trust you will conduct yourself with more propriety in the future!

The guy who lives in that green house works in my uncle’s greenhouse.

Perhaps you can abstract some useful tidbits from the abstract of this paper on neural inhibition.

3. Stress can heighten stimulus control. In each of the following examples, it highlights a variable that, in the speaker’s opinion, is not exerting sufficient influence over the behavior of the listener:

The doctor ordered you to stop eating anchovies.

The doctor ordered you to stop eating anchovies.

The doctor ordered you to stop eating anchovies.

The doctor ordered you to stop eating anchovies.

The doctor ordered you to stop eating anchovies.

The doctor ordered you to stop eating anchovies.

4. Rising and falling pitch will alter the function of sentences and other units. That is, they affect the listener differently: 

Hal drove to Boston.

Hal drove to Boston?

Hal drove to Boston!

5. Slight pauses mark the boundaries of phrases, clauses, sentences, and other verbal units:

A) I bought cream cheese and crackers.

B) I bought cream, cheese, and crackers.

A) I’d like to give you the benefit of the doubt. I can’t stop thinking you are the victim here.

B) I’d like to give you the benefit of the doubt. I can’t. Stop thinking you are the victim here.

6. It alerts the listener to where we are in a sentence frame. A verb will often fall in characteristic patterns with other words: “The A promised the B that C would do D;” “The A mailed the B to the C;” and so on. The variable terms in such frames are typically stressed, relative to the filler words: “The clerk mailed the receipt to the customer.” The function of such prosodic stress is not well understood, but it may help the speaker organize an effective utterance and may help the listener respond effectively.

Prosody as a Learning Objective

Most of the time, people speak without any awareness of the prosody of their speech, so it is a feature of verbal behavior that we tend to overlook, both in our analyses and in our instruction. Most children pick up standard prosodic practices effortlessly, but children with autism or other disabilities often do not. But prosody is part of communication, and children whose prosody is absent or unusual are likely to suffer deficits not only in their role as speakers but as listeners. Furthermore, it is a way in which they might be marked as “different” by their peers. Prosody is an important feature of verbal behavior, and we must encompass it in our behavioral interpretations and include it in our therapeutic curricula, as some colleagues have recently started to do.

David C. Palmer is an adjunct instructor in the behavior analysis Ph.D. program at Western New England University and Senior Lecturer Emeritus at Smith College. Dr. Palmer has offered a far-reaching conceptual analysis of language and cognition from the standpoint of modern behaviorism and has addressed fundamental issues such as the unit of analysis, response class, and private events. His textbook co-authored with Donahoe, Learning and Complex Behavior (1994, 2010) integrates behavior analytic and biological approaches to the study of behavior and is still regarded as being at the cutting edge of our basic understanding of behavior.