Stress & Unstress: The Music of English

Stress and unstress are extremely important in spoken English.  It’s like music.  In music, some notes are played LOUDLY, and some notes are quiet.  Some notes are held for a while, and some notes are played quickly.   Music would be very boring if everything were played exactly the same: same volume, same speed, no changes in pitch…and it’s the same with spoken English.  

When we speak English, we naturally highlight (stress) the words that provide the most important information. Less important words like “the”, and “to” get less attention (unstress).  In a sentence like “The dog ate the cat” you can hear in the recording how the stress varies across the sentence. There’s stress and unstress. 

Listen to the sentence “The dog ate the cat” spoken through a kazoo:

Some words are louder, longer, and the pitch rises.  Can you hear it?   

The words “dog” and “cat” and “ate” are stressed more in this sentence than “the”.  The final word in this sentence, “cat” gets the MOST stress, so we call it the focus word.   

This is an example of the music of English, and it doesn’t just make you sound more interesting when you speak (but it does!)–some linguists believe that this musical quality is the most important part of correct English pronunciation.  People understand your English better if you vary the stress. It helps listeners identify the important pieces of information.   Stressing words like “a”, “to”, “of”, and “the” only confuses your listener and makes you harder to understand. 

Which words are stressed most in the following sentence?  What’s the focus word?

“Bob is cleaning the house.”