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I would like to understand what is the difference in lignuistic betwen pitch and intensity. On the picture (taken from native HK speaker), I have a Cantonese sentence.

Nei5 Jiu3 Caa4 Maa3 ?

Would you like tea?

  • Nei Jiu is on the first line.
  • Caa Maa is on the second line.

The blue line shows the pitch (tonality) and yellow the intensity with software Praat.

For instance, I find interesting the word Tea Caa (cf range 0.38348). Indeed, Caa goes down in terms of pitch but when it goes down on the pitch, it does not go down in intensity.

As a beginner, I was thinking that pitch, and intensity must go on same direction. Can someone explain me why it does not go in the same direction?

  • Have you studied the physics of sound waves? Intensity and frequency are independent physical parameters. What reason did you have for thinking that they would be correlated linguistically?
    – HAL
    Jun 24, 2015 at 2:19
  • @無色受想行識 Hello. No I haven't studied it: even not physics at all. That's something that I probably need to know (do you have any ressources for beginners?). I don't know I was just thinking is correlated...
    – S12000
    Jun 24, 2015 at 12:18

1 Answer 1


"Pitch" is the perceptual correlate of fundamental frequency which is the rate of vibration of the vocal folds (in speech). "Intensity" is the perceptual correlate of... I'll say RMS amplitude. There are a lot of things that determine amplitude, such as the openness of the vocal tract. In vowels, Fundamental Frequency (F0) does often correlate with amplitude, but this is often offset by intrinsic amplitude properties of vowels ([a] tends to have higher amplitude, [i u] tend to have lower amplitude).

Amplitude is generally not a linguistically-controlled feature at the level of the segment or syllable, but it can be controlled paralinguistically over short periods by talking softly. Pitch, on the other hand, is one of the major physical realizations of tone.

  • Thank you your answer helps. Just what do you mean by F0 and OTOH. I'm not in the field of lignuistic...
    – S12000
    Feb 24, 2015 at 14:08
  • @Swiss12000 'F0' is shorthand for fundamental frequency. Feb 25, 2015 at 3:15
  • I am a physics student and I learned that pitch is due to fundamental frequency. But I have a question that I don't understand. I saw some power spectrum in which the intensity of the overtones are higher than the fundamental frequencies and yet our perception of pitch still comes from the fundamental frequency. However, I think human perception tend to be more biased or sensitive to higher frequencies and that's why the melody of a song is usually the highest part. However, an average person can perceive the fundamental frequency very easily but very hard to hear the overtones. Why?
    – velut luna
    Jul 30, 2016 at 15:29
  • That's actually a good and fundamental question. There seem to be different mechanisms for perceiving periodic and non-periodic sound, and given that one would expect the fundamental to be really important in parsing periodic sounds (to the point that people can interpolate a fundamental when there is zero energy at that frequency). I think it's about information-management. With aperiodic sound you have to attend to a wide range of frequencies, at the expense of time.
    – user6726
    Jul 30, 2016 at 16:14

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