Musa Lesson 5: Intonation

Now we're ready for one of the most difficult things to learn in Musa: how to spell intonation. It's not actually that hard; the problem is that no other script records it! Instead, we use boldface, italics, UPPERCASE and other tricks with fonts, we use emoticons (smileys, etc.) and creative punctuation, like :), and we let readers guess what the writer means. To avoid problems, we actually write in a different register than we speak in, using drier language and fewer verbs. And now with text messages and chats, it's very common to be misunderstood because of the absence of tone of voice. These are the problems that Musa spelling for intonation is designed to solve.

This page is going to start off with a fairly theoretical presentation, a recap of the presentation on the Intonation page. To spell intonation, you need to recognize the three key concepts of tonality, tonicity and tone. But you probably won't understand those concepts until we've worked through the examples in the latter part of the lesson.

What is Intonation?

Intonation is the melody of a clause, the music of our speech. It's not syllable tone or stress, which is the melody of a single syllable - intonation covers the whole clause. Here are some examples from English of different intonations:

Click on the buttons: 0 1 2 3 4 5

We might try to convey those intonations in writing with question marks, exclamation points, and so on, but these tools only convey the speaker's intent, not his actual tone. The Musa intonation system, on the other hand, is intended to convey the actual musical tone (to a certain level of abstraction, to be sure: we don't write sheet music).


If you listen to someone speaking, and you pay attention to the melody, you'll hear that we break up each little speech into tone groups, each with its own melody. Often, but not always, these tone groups correspond to grammatical clauses. They represent information groups: each departs from information already known to the listener (the given) to add new information. As a rule of thumb, the breaks between tone groups are the places where you expect to find the current punctuation: periods, question marks, commas and so forth.

In Musa, we mark the end of these groups with a horizontal line - like a level accent but without the vowel - attached to the last word in the phrase, the final. This level accent is high if the tone group ends with a rise, and low if it ends with a fall. In English, a rising tone usually - but not always - indicates that the idea isn't finished: it's a question waiting for an answer, or a phrase waiting for the rest of the sentence. A falling tone usually indicates some form of finality. But we'll talk more about this later.


Within each tone group, there's a nucleus which carries the most prominent pitch change. It's often, but not always, the last stressed syllable in the group, and it usually represents the end of the new information. In Musa, we mark this tonic with slanted accents, attached to the end of the word (the high vowel shows which syllable is stressed). Sometimes, there are multiple tonic elements in the same tone group; if that's the case, they're all marked with slanted accents. But most of the time, the tonic falls at the end of the tone group, and Musa combines the slanted tonic accent with the level final accent, as shown in the combined column below.


Tonality and tonicity concern the position of the accents, but the actual contour of the melody is indicated by the shape of the accent. There are five tones in English, plus one variant and two compound tones :

Tone Name Accent on Tonic Accent on Final Combined Accent Sound
1. Low Falling
This is the tone of a simple declarative sentence, one with no additional meaning.
1s. High Falling
This tone is used when you want to add emphasis.
2. High Rising
This tone represents a query, a challenge, or a response.
3. Level Rising
This tone is uncommitted: tentative, mildly agreeing, or simply incomplete, with the rest to follow.
4. Fall Rising
This tone adds a feature of reservation, as if there were a but involved somewhere.
5. Rise Falling
This tone indicates surprise that the sentence is true.
13. Fall + Level Rising 
This tone adds a secondary focus.
53. Rise Falling + Level Rising 
This tone adds a secondary focus.

You'll notice that the combined accents for the Low Falling and Level Rising tones are simply the level accents. In other words, in the two most common cases we simply omit the tonic accent.

Spelling Intonation

Now we're going to punctuate an example, using Musa punctuation but staying in the Roman alphabet. The following is an excerpt from the radio comedy of Bob and Ray, from an episode that first aired on CBS on 4 November 1959, entitled "The Good Neighbor".

Our guest today is another person who's read, and become interested in, a magazine advertisement. She's Miss Pauline Smelt, of Axelrod, Montana.
Excuse me, Mr. Elliot. My name is Smell, not Smelt.
Oh, I'm sorry.
Well, it embarasses me. Who wants to be named after a fish?
Well, once more, if you'll forgive me, Miss Smell...
My word! (titters)

Let's start by dividing the first sentence into tone groups at the places where we could pause. You can clearly hear that only the last group ends with a falling tone that indicates finality. We'll put a low level accent there and a high level accent at the other pauses:

Our guest today is another person who's read and become interested in a magazine advertisement

Now listen for the tonic of each group: the heaviest syllable. In the first group, it's the word guest, which you can hear carries a falling tone. So we mark guest with a following low falling accent. You don't have to learn the names of the tones, but this group is tone 13, Fall & Level Rising, to indicate a secondary focus: this isn't the main part of the sentence.

In the second group, you can hear that the tonic is at the end of the group, at person. Rising tones are less definitive than falling tones, so if you're hesitating, it's probably a rising tone. But this one isn't bold, as a high rising tone would be: it's only a low rising tone. So this is tone 3, Level Rising, and we would mark it with a low rising accent ... BUT, this tonic accent is next to the final accent, so they combine - in this case (see the chart above) into a single high level accent.

The third group is very short, with only one stressed word. Like the first, it's Fall & Level Rising tone, but this time, both accents appear at the end of the word.

The fourth group has the same tone, but here, like in the first group, the tonic doesn't fall on the last word.

The last group is the main meaning-bearing part of the sentence, and it's in tone 1, Low Falling. The tonic is a falling tone on advertisement, but the low falling accent combines with the following low level accent.

Here's the result:

Our guest today is another person who's read and become interested in a magazine advertisement

That seems daunting, but actually, there are only eight different tones, so you'll learn to recognize them pretty quickly. Try reading the last version to yourself out loud, and then replay the audio, to see how close you come. Or try it with the second sentence, below, before replaying it.

She's Miss Pauline Smelt of Axelrod Montana

Note that the comma which we write in Roman after Axelrod isn't needed in Musa. It's as if Axelrod were the first name of the town, and Montana its last name.

Hidden in the box below is the full punctuated sample. Why don't you print out the original above and try to punctuate it yourself, then check it against my version?

Our guest today is another person who's read and become interested in a magazine advertisement She's Miss Pauline Smelt of Axelrod Montana
Excuse me Mr. Elliot My name is Smell not Smelt.
Oh I'm sorry
Well, it embarasses me Who wants to be named after a fish
Well, once more if you'll forgive me Miss Smell
My word (titters)

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