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  • 1: something that is intoned; specifically : the opening tones of a Gregorian chant
  • 2: the act of intoning and especially of chanting
  • 3: the ability to play or sing notes in tune
  • 4: manner of utterance; specifically : the rise and fall in pitch of the voice in speech


In linguistics, intonation is variation of pitch while speaking which is not used to distinguish words. It contrasts with tone, in which pitch variation does distinguish words. Intonation, rhythm, and stress are the three main elements of linguistic prosody. Intonation patterns in some languages, such as Swedish and Swiss German, can lead to conspicuous fluctuations in pitch, giving speech a sing-song quality. Fluctuations in pitch either involve a rising pitch or a falling pitch. Intonation is found in every language and even in tonal languages, but the realisation and function are seemingly different. It is used in non-tonal languages to add attitudes to words (attitudinal function) and to differentiate between wh-questions, yes-no questions, declarative statements, commands, requests, etc. Intonation can also be used for discourse analysis where new information is realised by means of intonation. It can also be used for emphatic/contrastive purposes.

All languages use pitch pragmatically as intonation — for instance for emphasis, to convey surprise or irony, or to pose a question. Tonal languages such as Chinese and Hausa use pitch for distinguishing words in addition to providing intonation.

Generally speaking, the following intonations are distinguished:

  • Rising Intonation means the pitch of the voice increases over time [↗];
  • Falling Intonation means that the pitch decreases with time [↘];
  • Dipping Intonation falls and then rises [↘↗];
  • Peaking Intonation rises and then falls [↗↘].

Those with congenital amusia show impaired ability to discriminate, identify and imitate the intonation of the final words in sentences.[1]