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Different Tones of Voice

Updated April 17, 2017

Different tones of voice convey different emotional states and power relationships, regardless of the culture of the language being spoken. While specific tones of voice can play important roles in pronunciation in certain languages, sustained changes in pitch and intonation impact how we communicate our emotions and our status in human society.

Falling Pitch

Falling pitch generally denotes a pleasant feeling or a position of power. The phrase "talking down to someone" originates literally in this concept. Someone who is in power is able to speak with a gradually declining tone, indicating that he is relaxed, in control and probably content, if not happy. Similarly, those who tend to speak with a descending tone represent their state of mind as being calm.

Rising Pitch

Rising pitch, however, is generally a sign of increasing excitement, fear or terror. Those who confront a social situation by gradually increasing the pitch of their tone tend to project irrationality or a sense of powerlessness. Those who are anxious or afraid also speak with gradually rising intonation.

Emotional Nuance in Intonation

Tones of voice frequently can betray emotional clues due to clashes in intonation versus verbalisation. Sarcasm, for example, is entirely dependent on tones of voice, while subtler shades of hidden meaning, or subtext, can often only be detected by subtle changes in tone. Although people put great effort into attempting to say what they mean, the ultimate deciding factor for the meaning of the sentence will reside in the tone in which it is spoken, according to Norman D. Cook, author of "Tone of Voice and Mind: The Connections Between Intonation, Emotion, Cognition, and Consciousness."

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About the Author

Julia Lai is a frequent contributor to Los Angeles-based arts and literature publications. She graduated from University of California, Los Angeles with a bachelor's degree in history and has been writing professionally since 2008.