Pitch contour

In linguistics, speech synthesis, and music, the pitch contour of a sound is a function or curve that tracks the perceived pitch of the sound over time. Pitch contour may include multiple sounds utilizing many pitches, and can relate the frequency function at one point in time to the frequency function at a later point.

It is fundamental to the linguistic concept of tone, where the pitch or change in pitch of a speech unit over time affects the semantic meaning of a sound. It also indicates intonation in pitch accent languages.

One of the primary challenges in speech synthesis technology, particularly for Western languages, is to create a natural-sounding pitch contour for the utterance as a whole. Unnatural pitch contours result in synthesis that sounds "lifeless" or "emotionless" to human listeners, a feature that has become a stereotype of speech synthesis in popular culture.

In music, the pitch contour focuses on the relative change in pitch over time of a primary sequence of played notes. The same contour can be transposed without losing its essential relative qualities, such as sudden changes in pitch or a pitch that rises or falls over time.

Pure tones have a clear pitch, but complex sounds such as speech and music typically have intense peaks at many different frequencies. Nevertheless, by establishing a fixed reference point in the frequency function of a complex sound, and then observing the movement of this reference point as the function translates, one can generate a meaningful pitch contour consistent with human experience.

For example, the vowel e has two primary formants, one peaking between 400 and 600 Hz and one between 2200 and 2600 Hz. When a person speaks a sentence involving multiple e sounds, the peaks will shift within these ranges, and the movement of the peaks between two instances establishes the difference in their values on the pitch contour.

See also

Music bibliography

  • Cogan and Escot (1976). Sonic Design: The Nature of Sound and Music. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall).
  • Friedmann, "A Methodology for the Discussion of Contour: Its Application to Schoenberg's Music," Journal of Music Theory 29 (1985): 223–48.
  • Morris, Composition with Pitch-Classes: A Theory of Compositional Design (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987)
  • Polansky, "Morphological Metrics: An Introduction to a Theory of Formal Distances" in Proceedings of the International Computer Music Conference (San Francisco: Computer Music Association, 1987).
  • Polansky, Larry; Richard Bassein (1992). "Possible and Impossible Melody: Some Formal Aspects of Contour", Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 36, No. 2. (Autumn, 1992), pp. 259–284.


  • Mieczyslaw Kolinski, "The Structure of Melodic Movement: A New Method of Analysis," Studies in Ethnomusicology 2 (1965): 96–120
  • Charles R. Adams, "Melodic Contour Typology," Ethnomusicology 20 (1976): 179- 215.
  • Charles Seeger, "On the Moods of a Music-Logic." Journal of the American Musicology Society 8 (1960): 224–61.
  • Elizabeth West Marvin, "A Generalization of Contour Theory to Diverse Musical Spaces: Analytical Applications to the Music of Dallapiccola and Stockhausen" in Musical Pluralism: Aspects of Aesthetics and Structure Since 1945 (forthcoming). Contains review of these and earlier articles.
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