Flashback Friday – Inflection

I remember reading out loud to my parents when I was a toddler and preschooler. I remember being taught how to change my intonation depending on the punctuation and meaning of the sentence.

I was specifically told to do this because it was boring to listen to words that all sounded the same in monotone.

All those hours and years spent poring over new editions of McGuffy readers with critical feedback at every turn of a phrase, and it was still a surprise to me when my friend suddenly asked me during a walk why this guy in middle school said all his sentences like they were questions.

I stopped walking, just before we reached the library, “How can you say a sentence like a question?” was my immediate and very sentence-like response.

My friend stared at me for a moment before replying. “Well, with a question you raise the pitch at the end of the sentence. You didn’t know that?” I noted how she very clearly raised the pitch at the end of her question, stunned that I hadn’t ever noticed people doing that before.

I, a musician who could play multiple instruments and had taught myself through three years’ worth of piano courses in the space of about 6 months when I was a tween, didn’t know that questions had raised pitches at the ends.

I had always gone by the order of the words and context of the conversation to figure out whether something was a question. Consequently, I always ended up answering rhetorical questions the same way I would regular questions unless they were clearly absurd or obvious.

I remember spending a lot of time in the bathroom when I was a tween/teen. Not terribly unusual behavior for that age – especially being a girl. However, I spent most of my time in there the same way I’d spent my time in the bathroom as a small child: by practicing phrases quietly, but out-loud, to myself.

Commercials were my favorite things to practice to myself in the mirror. They were short and easy to memorize. I practiced the exact intonation, infection, and physical actions of the people in the commercials. Eventually, around high school, I branched out and began making my own scenes based on conversations I’d heard or been part of recently.

As I got older I would specifically focus on recreating conversations that had gone badly – reimagining them with happy endings so that I was able to say the right thing in the right way and magically not have hurt or upset anyone.

Even with all that practice, I still didn’t understand that inflections added actual meanings and didn’t primarily exist to make spoken words and phrases sound less boring.

3 thoughts on “Flashback Friday – Inflection

  1. Thank you for writing this. It is interesting in autism how two people can struggle in one area in opposite ways. You missed the meaning in vocal inflection and I hyper-recognize it and often wind up misinterpreting certain inflections as the person being angry with me. That’s amazing that you taught yourself to play 3 years worth of piano in 6 months. God gave you a gift. I imagine music could be taught to teach autistic people to recognize vocal inflection. I can’t play a piano, but I banged on one as a kid at my grandparents’ house. I made the low scale angry and the high end afraid. The middle of the piano was happy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do wonder if I would’ve missed vocal inflections so completely had I not been told that they existed to make the spoken word sound more interesting. That explanation for vocal inflections stuck with me in a very serious way so I never bothered to look for any other possible explanations.

      Thank you for your kind words about my music ❤ I've been playing piano more frequently in the last couple of weeks and I've remembered how much I loved it before I lost my confidence in my abilities. I think you could be right about the possibilities of using music to help teach vocal inflection. I can definitely tell what mood a piece of music is going for, much better than I can tell what mood a person has 🙂 Correlating them could be helpful. I'll think about that some more.

      I used to do a similar thing as a kid at my grandparents' house too! I'd make up songs with crashing thunder on the low end, dancing in the middle, and running away and/or rain on the high end.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think a YouTube video series could help teach music and vocal inflection. Composers express their emotions through music, as you have said.


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