Melody | Remarkable modulations in tone that make speech tend toward song, chanting, or litany. At times uneven, repetitive, contrasted, or monotonous, melody is what gives speech its expressiveness.

School grammar books identify and teach three types of intonation corresponding to three modes of expression: declarative, interrogative, and exclamative. The first is associated with assessment or commentary: its melodic line “drops” at the end of a sentence. The second is for questions, the voice rising into a small upward curve at the end of an utterance to mark a suspension waiting to be resolved. The last case, for surprise, is also ascendant but more sharply so, as if suspended at its peak by the event that made it happen.

In reality, though, speech undergoes much more subtle modulations: it is obvious that we do not always speak in the same tone, and that even the most ordinary form of speech modulates its pitch and rhythm. Listening to this excerpt of a piece by René Lussier shows us just that.

As with timbre, certain speakers can be recognized by the melody of their speech; certain situations can also be recognized by the melodies they call for. Certain contexts produce more or less regular or uneven melodies, marking the affective or rhetorical nature of the enunciative situation in question. Finally, speech can also tend toward chanting or litany. In such cases, we say that it sounds like a speaker is singing when they talk, and the melodic aspect of their speech, freed of the necessities of address, will favor expressiveness over expression.

Standardized inflection

Certain forms of speech are built from pre-established tonal canons. Like this French railway announcement, for example, played on train station platforms. The strangeness of these words is due to the fact that they are artificially constructed, made up of pre-recorded words that form a coherent and instantly effective utterance (“travelers are to move to platform 1 without delay”), all while revealing their patched-together nature through gaps in the tonal lines they follow. This paradoxical excerpt is both regular and strangely inorganic.

In many cases, speech is very clearly structured (or implied) by certain melodic standards that have been more or less well assimilated by a speaker. The “proper speech” or “proper reading” these words tend to conform to are based on a certain vision of variety and modulation. This sermon, this response to an interview, this story, all aim to give life to a scene or utterance that will make them more lively and attractive.

These forms of speech can combat the monotony of someone “droning on” by playing with different voices or pitches (for an example of monotonous yet thrilling speech, see Mon père by Charles Pennequin).

In this excerpt from Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s film En Rachachant, conventional speech pitches are outrageously accentuated to produce a strange form of dialogue, trying so hard to sound correct that it feels “fake”—perhaps the very definition of the invented word rachacher which gives the film its title.

Sinusoidal forms

Some of this collection’s excerpts contain melodies remarkable for the way they modulate their pitches into almost sinusoidal forms. This process is characterized by repetitive utterances in which a speaker tries to make each iteration unique through pitch variation, as in shipping forecasts, this tongue twister, or this Gertrude Stein reading. In the same vein, we can cite the very strongly cadenced melody of an auctioneer’s words, compressed and accelerated to an extreme.

A sinusoidal melody also often ends up taking root by custom or wear, as in the routine musicality of this stewardess’s voice, identical in Arabic and in French. Or, sometimes the pattern and repetition of such modulations are structured around a strongly accentuated final note which highlights an utterance’s serial nature: lists, enumeration, arguments. This kind of melody gives speech rhythm, as can be heard in this excerpt from an Abdellatif Kechiche film or in this lecture by Vladimir Jankelevitch.

Uneven melodies

Whereas standardized speech modulates its pitch around a base frequency, some forms of speech are defined by uneven melodies which take form “by hops and by skips,” like the archetypal example of Vladimir Jankelevitch, who can be heard in this wonderful excerpt. These melodic jolts often mark problems in someone’s speech. Physiological problems for this transsexual person going through hormone treatments, or, more largely, ailments produced by an overflow of emotion (or the desire to produce some).

Such is the case with political speeches and their vehemence, pleas, poetic diatribes and, in an even more musical example, gospel preaching (see also C’est bizarre). These “eccentric” melodies are produced by overemphasis, seen as a particular means of dramatizing speech. Indeed, this example shows how a tragedian’s declamation is carried by the rise and fall of her lyrical intonations (see also Entre ici, Jean Moulin).

Speech with uneven melodies belongs to a system that exceeds the typical boundaries of intonation, calling out to the pre-verbal kingdom of children or animals, as with this cowherd from Poitou guiding his animals, or this man imitating birdcalls. This is also the case with babies babbling, a process that is both expressive (showing us the child’s happy or angry affects), intentional (babbling is addressed to someone, it counts on certain effects), and experimental. A child discovers and tunes its vocal apparatus through a series of intuitive scales that allow it to measure tessitura and learn to modulate expressiveness. This is not far from the approach of certain twentieth-century poets or composers like Raoul Hausmann or Luciano Berio, who dismantled and reinvented traditional modes of singing and habitual forms of speech.

Often, the extension of certain vowels pushes these forms of speech close to song, as in this hypnosis tape, this reading of a poem by its author, or this piece by John Cage.


Hence, the collection also provides us with forms of speech whose tonal variations push them close to song. This is the murky domain of sing-speech or speak-song. Opera recitatives, for example, are a means of playing with the tonal organization of speech. Sometimes speech functions like a residual mode of singing (see C’est fini là il est fichu il est mort or La bataille), or sometimes singing’s melodic structure allows for a message to be expressed, as in this recording by an Art Brut artist. Finally, certain unique utterances allow us to hear the way that singing’s aesthetic independence and communicative intent can be ritually bound to one another (see Mantra de la compassion, L’enfant du Coran, (Mh mh mh) yeh yeh eh): in order for speech to be truly effective as such, it must be sung; indeed, it is speech only insofar as it is song.

  • (Mh mh mh) yeh yeh eh

    Selknam Shaman, Argentina, excerpt of Les voix du monde : une anthologie des expressions vocales, 1966

  • À droite à chemin st Foix

    René Lussier, excerpt of the recording Le Trésor de la langue, 1989.

  • A hive for the honeybee

    William Butler Yeats, excerpt of a recording for the BBC, 1932.

  • À peine un filet pluvieux

    Evelyne Dheliat, excerpt from the TF1 weather report, 2016.

  • A pleasant evening

    Announcement in a TGV train car, 2011.

  • Abandonnez-vous à la détente

    Excerpt of the hypnosis recording Méta-relaxation : créativité face aux problèmes, 1990s.

  • Achii chii méé

    Orphée Elimane Mbengue, personnal recording by Julie Lacoste, 2008.

  • And we won

    Donald Trump, excerpt of the state of emergency speech, 2019.

  • Attention d'vant là-bas les gars

    Poitou farmer’s call, excerpt of the recording Voix du Monde : une anthologie des expressions orales, 1986.

  • Au centre à l'arrière

    Security instructions before takeoff, recording by Nicolas Rollet, 2012.

  • Basket of biscuits

    Radio test, excerpt of a recording for the film Tongue Twisters by Érik Bullot, 2007.

  • Bonne nouvelle

    Excerpt of a Catholic sermon, excerpt of the show La Messe, France Culture, 2009.

  • Bortugal un euro

    Market scene, 2019.

  • C'est bizarre

    Yves, excerpt of the film Le Moindre Geste by Fernand Deligny, 1962-1971.

  • C'est un parti sain

    Gérard Filoche, excerpt of an interview, LCI, 2013.

  • Chacun son cul

    Scene from the subway, recording by Thibault Capéran, 2012.

  • Che belle patate

    Market scene, 2019

  • Come a long long way

    Presentation of the Philippine show Pornikula, 2009.

  • Connais pas

    Man reading an obituary, recording by Gauthier Tassart, 2007.

  • Coquelicot

    Scène de famille, enregistrement de Nicolas Rollet, 2018.

  • Cos I don't write shit

    Lil Wayne, excerpt of the album Tha Carter III, 2008.

  • C’est pas mademoiselle, c’est madame

    Jacqueline, Six fois deux / Sur et sous la communication (episode 6b) from Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, 1976.

  • Dediquei

    Chivalrous song, excerpt of the documentary Moro no Brasil by Mika Kaurismaki, 2002.

  • Des trappes aux gens

    Klaus Kinski, Yves Mourousi, extrait de l'émission Télé Zèbre, Antenne 2, 1990.

  • Desyat' obez'yan

    Excerpt of a video for learning how to count, Russia, 2013.

  • Dhiyo yo nah prachodayat

    Recitation of a mantra, excerpt of a YouTube video, unknown date.

  • Dubh-bhlian

    Annie Johnston, excerpt of a recording by Alan Lomax Bird Imitations, Barra island (Scotland), 1951


  • Elle fait toujours la belle

    Hafsia Herzi, excerpt of the film La Graine et le mulet by Abdellatif Kechiche, 2007.

  • Enfant Ernesto

    Olivier Straub, Nadette Thinus, Raymond Gérard, excerpt of the film En rachâchant by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1982.

  • Entre ici, Jean Moulin

    André Malraux, excerpt of a speech made to mark the transfer of Jean Moulin’s ashes to the Panthéon, 1964.

  • Est-ce que vous m’aimez ?

    Raymond Devos, excerpt of the film Pierrot le fou by Jean-Luc Godard, 1965.

  • Hallo Heribert

    Message posted on YouTube, 2013.

  • He , abaliva !

    Carlo Bonomi, excerpt from the serial La linea by Osvaldo Cavandoli, RAI, 1971.

  • I come from...

    Amy Walker, excerpt of the video “21 Accents” posted on YouTube, 2008.

  • I live for this

    Kristina Rose and Manuel Ferrara, excerpt of the film Kristina Rose Is Slutwoman, 2011.

  • I saw

    Sermon by a pastor in the United States, excerpt of Les Voix du monde : une anthologie des expressions orales, 1978

  • I still love you

    Excerpt of the A & E show, A&E TV, 2010.

  • Il était ch'timi

    Speech at a retirement celebration, excerpt of the film Chers camarades by Gérard Vidal, 2004.

  • In Principio

    Excerpt of A-Ronne by Luciano Berio, text by Edoardo Sanguineti, 1974.

  • Inhale exhale

    Excerpt of a yoga class, 2010.

  • Itako no Kuchiyose

    Curse by an Itako shaman, recorded at the Osorezam festival, Japan, 1973.

  • J'ai appris hier

    Antonin Artaud, excerpt of the radio performance Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu, recorded for the RDF (but never broadcast), 1947.

  • J'enclenche la fumée top

    "Musique blanche" from La Patrouille de France, YouTube video, 2013.

  • Jesteś mężem stanu

    Reciting of a poem by a child at official inauguration, Poland, 2011

  • Kazoo speech

    Excerpt of City Lights by Charlie Chaplin, 1931.

  • Kili kili kili kolum

    Raoul Hausmann, excerpt of Phonèmes, 1956-1957.

  • L'enfant du Coran

    Hasan bin Abdullah Al Awadh, ritual reading of the Coran, 2006.

  • La bataille

    Colette Magny, excerpt of the recording Transit, 1975.

  • Le pore Firmin

    Marius Champailler, excerpt of the story “Les Corbeaux” in Franco-Provençal, recording by J.B. Martin, F. Charpigny, and A.M. Genouiller, Aix-en-Provence, 1986.

  • Les singes écuyers

    Circus advertisement, personal recording, 2014.

  • Let's get ready to rumble

    Michael Buffer, introduction to the fight of George Foreman vs. Shannon Briggs, 1997.

  • Like you were talking

    Maria Callas and Barbara Shuttleworth, excerpt of a recording of a masterclass at the Julliard School, 1971.

  • Lowie me disait

    Claude Levi-Strauss and Georges Charbonnier, excerpt of Grands Entretiens, France Culture, 1959.

  • Mais il y a des vilains peut-être

    Street Scene, excerpts from the documentary On the Edge of the World, Claude Drexel, Arte, 2014.

  • Mer agitée, des pluies

    Marie-Pierre Planchon, extrait de la météo marine, France Inter, 2009

  • Messi, Messi, Messi

    Josep Maria Puyal, excerpt from a soccer commentary, Catalunya Ràdio, 2007.

  • Mil euros

    Drawing of the Sorteo de Navidad, Christmas lottery, 2014.

  • Mr Bojangles

    Lucinda Childs, excerpt of the opera Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, 1976.

  • Naga Pedale

    Cumbia Siglo XX, excerpt of the compilation Palenque Palenque : Champeta criolla & Afro Roots in Columbia, 1970s.

  • Nine seventy-five

    John Korrey, excerpt of an auction, excerpt from the DVD Chant of a Champion, 2007.

  • Ost eller sydost

    Excerpt from the marine weather report, Sverige Radio, Sweden, 2017. 

  • Our main event of the evening

    Introduction to the fight of Sam King Soliman vs. Raoul Nunoz, 2006.

  • Par madame Sarah Bernhardt

    Sarah Bernhardt reading a monologue from Jean Racine’s Phèdre, 1902.

  • Perja kupujem

    Call of a rag-picker, Serbia, 2007. 

  • Proroshijile sunt grave

    Excerpt of an orthodox monk's YouTube video blog, Romania, 2014.

  • Quelle affaire !

    Excerpt of the news report “La cour des miracles de Mons” by Adrien Lasserre and Jean-Christophe Adnet, RTBF, 2012.

  • Rire c'est bon pour la santé

    Johann Schneider Ammann, President of the Helvetic Confederation, excerpt from a video address on the occasion of the Day of the Sick, 2016. 

  • Sanmalu

    Scene from an auction at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, YouTube video, 2007.

  • Sauf le vendredi

    Serveur vocal de la mairie de Gennevilliers, 2019

  • Shukraan li'iihtmamikum

    Announcement by an Air Morocco stewardess, personal recording, 2010.

  • So da nwo da sye

    Recitation of a mantra, YouTube video, 2007.

  • Suppa Roko

    John Cage, excerpt of the performance Empty Words at the Teatro Lirico of Milan, 1977.

  • Surya Namaskar

    Excerpt of a yoga class, personal recording, 2012.

  • Tak vot

    Andreï Lado, extrait d'un cours de gymnastique articulatoire, YouTube, 2012.

  • Ti fazzu un culu tantu

    Maria di Trapani, video letter, YouTube, 2013.

  • Tout le monde boit

    Michel Daedern, excerpt of an interview, 2007

  • Trouver la belle

    Writing workshop scene from Le Papotin, directed by Alexandre Plank for L’Atelier Fiction, France Culture, 2017.

  • Un euro pour manger

    Scene from the subway, personal recording, 2016.

  • Un jour de novembre

    Victoria, volunteer reader, excerpt of the audiobook Sans Famille by Hector Malo, 2009.

  • Un petit vilain

    Noëlle Obscarskas, excerpt of a conversation with an ostrich, YouTube, 2014.

  • Viete prečo

    Excerpt from a church sermon, slovak television, 2014.

  • We are beautiful

    Jill Bolte Taylor, excerpt of the TED Talk A Stroke of Insight, 2008.

  • We have the program

    Excerpt of a marketing class, personal recording, 2014.

  • We still need communism

    Sceneable, excerpt of a video posted on Youtube, 2017.

  • Why can't a woman be like a man

    Rex Harrison, Wilfrid Hyde-White, extrait du film My Fair Lady de George Cukor, 1964

  • Would he like it ?

    Gertrude Stein, reading of the poem “If I Told Him, A Completed Portrait of Picasso,” 1934-1935.

  • Xiuuu Yang Sè !

    Itinerant umbrella repairer in Shanghai, 1980s.

Mil euros

Drawing of the Sorteo de Navidad, Christmas lottery, 2014.

He , abaliva !

Carlo Bonomi, excerpt from the serial La linea by Osvaldo Cavandoli, RAI, 1971.