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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.

Frequency pitch tone and length

  • 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


Frequency pitch tone and length






  • 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

Frequency pitch tone and length

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

Frequency pitch tone and length

= 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.