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Frequency, Pitch, Tone and Length. October 15, 2012 Thanks to Chilin Shih for making some of these lecture materials available. Announcements. For Wednesday: transcription exercise on tone. Yoruba and Cantonese For Friday: mid-sagittal diagram exercise

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frequency pitch tone and length
Frequency, Pitch, Tone and Length

October 15, 2012

Thanks to Chilin Shih for making some of these lecture materials available.

  • For Wednesday: transcription exercise on tone.
    • Yoruba and Cantonese
  • For Friday: mid-sagittal diagram exercise
    • Check it out on the course web page.
  • Production exercise #2 due at 5 pm next Monday (the 22nd).
  • Okay, let’s put together some complex waves…
sine waves
Sine Waves
  • The reading on the pressure level meter will fluctuate between high and low pressure values
  • In the simplest case, the variations in pressure level will look like a sine wave.



other basic sinewave concepts
Other Basic Sinewave concepts
  • Sinewaves are periodic; i.e., they recur over time.
  • The period is the amount of time it takes for the pattern to repeat itself.
  • The frequency is the number of times, within a given timeframe, that the pattern repeats itself.
  • Frequency = 1 / period
    • usually measured in cycles per second, or Hertz
  • The peakamplitude is the the maximum amount of vertical displacement in the wave
    • = maximum/minimum amount of pressure
complex waves
Complex Waves
  • When more than one sinewave gets combined, they form a complex wave.
  • At any given time, each wave will have some amplitude value.
    • A1(t1) := Amplitude value of sinewave 1 at time 1
    • A2(t1) := Amplitude value of sinewave 2 at time 1
  • The amplitude value of the complex wave is the sum of these values.
    • Ac(t1) = A1 (t1) + A2 (t1)
complex wave example
Complex Wave Example
  • Take waveform 1:
    • high amplitude
    • low frequency


  • Add waveform 2:
    • low amplitude
    • high frequency


  • The sum is this complex waveform:
other examples
Other Examples
  • 480 Hz tone
  • 620 Hz tone
  • the combo = ?
fundamental frequency
Fundamental Frequency
  • The fundamental frequency of a complex wave is the frequency at which the complex wave repeats itself.
  • = greatest common denominator of frequencies of component waves.
  • Greatest common denominator =
    • largest number that two (or more) numbers can be divided by to yield an integer (whole number) value.
  • Q: What’s the fundamental frequency of a complex wave consisting of 600 Hz and 800 Hz tones?
  • How about one with 120 Hz and 150 Hz tones?
linguistically speaking
Linguistically Speaking
  • In speech, the fundamental frequency of voiced sounds is based on the rate at which the vocal folds open and close.
  • The wave set up by the vocal folds is a complex wave.
complex wave visual
Complex Wave Visual
  • Combination of 100 Hz and 300 Hz wave.
  • Voicing sort of looks like this, but it’s even more complex:
why should you care
Why Should You Care?
  • The modulation of fundamental frequency in speech can have linguistic meaning.
    • Tone
    • Pitch Accent
    • Stress
    • Intonation
  • Since this modulation can occur (relatively) independently of the stream of vowel and consonant segments in speech…
    • these linguistic properties are often referred to as suprasegmentals.
  • Suprasegmentals are phonetic features of speech which are “above the segment”
    • Tone/Accent/Intonation
    • Quantity
    • Stress
  • “Suprasegmental features are established by a comparison of items in a sequence.” --Ilse Lehiste (1970)
    •  Suprasegmental features are always defined in a relative manner.
where tone comes from
Where Tone Comes From

Here’s a waveform for my vowel :

  • The acoustic shockwave of each opening of the vocal folds shows up as a vertical bar in the waveform.
    • A “voicing bar”
voicing bar close up
Voicing Bar Close-up

Individual glottal pulses

voicing bars really close up
Voicing bars, really close up
  • Voicing is a complex wave. (i.e., not sinusoidal)
  • The fundamental frequency of voicing can be calculated by measuring the period between glottal pulses.
voicing bars really close up1
Voicing bars, really close up


  • Frequency = 1 / period
  • In this case, period = .008 seconds, so frequency = ?
pitch tracks
Pitch Tracks
  • Measuring the fundamental frequency (F0) at every step in a sound file yields a pitch track.
    • Time on the x-axis.
    • Fundamental frequency on the y-axis.



I’d like to collect sea shells this after noon

just so you know
Just So You Know
  • Praat has an automatic pitch tracker.
    • Check it out.
  • It can be messed up by:
    • voiceless sounds
    • obstruents (stops, fricatives, affricates)
  • Also, it can sometimes double or halve the correct fundamental frequency.
    • I’ll spare you the technical reasons why.
  • In general, though, it works well.
  • Tone is the linguistic use of fundamental frequency to signal important differences in meaning.
  • Note:
    • Acoustic = Fundamental Frequency
    • Perceptual = Pitch
    • Linguistic = Tone
  • English is a tone language…
    • Sort of. For one set of words only.
a typology
A Typology
  • F0 generally varies in three different ways in language:

1. Tone languages (Chinese, Navajo, Igbo)

    • Lexically determined tone on every syllable or word

2. Accentual languages (Japanese, Swedish)

    • The location of an accent in a particular word is lexically marked.

3. Stress languages (English, Russian)

    • It’s complicated.
mandarin tone
Mandarin Tone
  • Mandarin (Chinese) is a classic example of a tone language.

ma1: mother

ma2: hemp

ma3: horse

ma4: to scold

mandarin sentences
Mandarin Sentences

ma1-ma0 ma4 ma3.

“Mother scolds the horse.”

ma3 ma4 ma1-ma0.

“The horse scolds mother.”

how to transcribe tone
How to Transcribe Tone
  • Tones are defined by the pattern they make through a speaker’s frequency range.
  • The frequency range is usually assumed to encompass five levels (1-5).
    • (although this can vary, depending on the language)

Highest F0





Lowest F0








  • In Mandarin, tones span a frequency range of 1-5
  • Each tone is denoted by its (numerical) path through the frequency range
  • Each syllable can also be labeled with a tone number (e.g., ma1, ma2, ma3, ma4)
how to transcribe tone1
How to Transcribe Tone
  • Tone is relative
    • i.e., not absolute
  • Each speaker has a unique frequency range. For example:



~200 Hz

Highest F0


~350 Hz




~100 Hz

Lowest F0

~150 Hz


relativity in reality
Relativity, in Reality
  • The same tones may be denoted by completely different frequencies, depending on the speaker.
    • Tone is an abstract linguistic unit.

female speaker

ma, tone 1 (55)

male speaker

how to transcribe tone2
How To Transcribe Tone

female speaker

ma, tone 4 (51)

male speaker

Some speakers also use more of their frequency range.

even more tones
Even More Tones

level tones

contour tones

  • Other tone languages only have two or three tone targets
  • These are transcribed as sequences of High (H) and Low (L) tones. (or also Mid (M) tones)
  • They can also be labeled with accents over vowels
    • High = ´
    • Low = `
  • In these languages, tone can be used for grammatical markers (tense, possession)
ibibio tones
Ibibio Tones
  • Ibibio is spoken in southern Nigeria
accentual languages
Accentual Languages
  • In accentual languages, there is only one pitch accent associated with each word.
  • The pitch accent is realized on only one syllable in the word.
    • The other syllables in the word can have no accent.
  • Accent is lexically determined, so there can be minimal pairs.
  • Japanese is a pitch accent language…
    • for some, but not all, words
    • for some, but not all, dialects
  • Japanese words have one High accent
    • it attaches to one “mora” in the word
  • A mora = a vowel, or a consonant following a vowel, within a syllable.
  • For example:
    • [ni] ‘two’ has one mora.
    • [san] ‘three’ has two morae.
  • The first mora, if not accented, has a Low F0.
  • Morae following the accent have Low F0.

It’s actually slightly more complicated than this; for more info, see:

japanese examples
Japanese Examples
  • asa ‘morning’ H-L
  • asa ‘hemp’ L-H

“chopsticks” H-L-L

  • “bridge” L-H-L
  • “edge” L-H-H
length distinctions
Length Distinctions
  • Another suprasegmental linguistic feature is quantity.
  • Note:
    • Quantity = Linguistic
    • Length = Perceptual
    • Duration = Acoustic
  • Quantity distinctions are also relative.
    • depend on speaker
    • depend on speaking rate

= 150 milliseconds

= 275 milliseconds

  • Differences in quantity between segments translates to relative differences in duration.
  • Italian contrasts both long and short vowels and consonants.
  • Note: Italian has both palatal nasals and palatal laterals.