An Empathic Phenomenon: Prosody

Is there anyone you know who conveys emotions in their voice to mirror the emotions you’re expressing to them? Does anyone in your life consistently emphasize words in conversations? Many aspects of language come into play regarding changes in speech! Prosody, the stress, rhythm, and intonation of speech can be cited as the reason for these shifts in the way an individual speaks, as we learned in class. Everyone exhibits these shifts, but some may more than others! Upspeak is one of the most typical shifts, usually appearing to make a sentence that is not a question sound like one by raising the pitch of the last word in a sentence. ( What significance does upspeak have? Studies have shown that it “may be a sign of superior empathy.” ( “It turns out that the higher a person scores on standard tests of empathy, the more activity they have in their prosody-producing area of the brain!” (

Those who can recognize and perceive prosody are more empathetic, in part, because of mirror neurons in the brain. These neurons are responsible for perceiving things in our environment and cause us to react to those stimuli in the proper ways. When we see someone feeling emotions such as anger or sadness, our mirror neurons fire, often causing us to feel some version of the same feelings or react in a way sensitive to the individual feeling these emotions. We may even mirror the facial expressions of those we’re conversing with. In class, we discussed emotional prosody, which is a top-down factor which can constrain spoken word recognition.


What does that have to do with prosody? It turns out, we do the same thing within our speech! We elongate syllables within words to match, or soothe, the emotions others in our environment are exhibiting. ( This ability to change our speech allows us to show others that we understand their sentiments, and that we are understanding towards what they are expressing. Comprehension is heavily aided by prosody in speech and in reading. For social interactions, this is crucial. Imagine if your best friend just received an acceptance letter to their dream school, but when they excitedly told you about it, you could only reply in a monotonous voice! This likely would not bode well for your friendship. Typically, you would respond with enthusiasm at nearly, if not the same, level as your friend. Prosody in speech is one way to increase the salience and importance of some ideas over others and can allow us to show other individuals we are able to read the situation correctly. ( These types of social interactions, which are constant in our everyday lives, are what make prosody essential. Most humans cannot do without it because of the effects that would be present if they lacked it! ( Relationships in your everyday life would no doubt be strained if you could not properly show emotion through your voice.

Prosody, when expressed by adults, can aid in children’s development as well. This occurs in verbal communication was well as in reading. “They start making the same variations in pitch, they pause in the same places, and they emphasize the same segments in text” and the same words in verbal conversations. ( This aids in the socialization of children so that they may pick up on verbal cues and emotions. As previously mentioned, prosody helps us comprehend what others are saying to us clearly. The same is true with children. A high degree of prosody in their every day lives can make them better equipped to understand the messages other individuals in social settings are sending.

My two main sources both did an excellent job in describing the usefulness of prosody in every-day life through childhood into adulthood. I personally enjoyed how straight forward both articles were and how they each put forth descriptions of emphasis on words used in sentences. I think that the first article I came across could have used more real-world examples and more explanation of how the brain works during the choosing of which words need to be emphasized to best express emotion. In general, I highly recommend both articles because they truly give insight into how important the emotional connections we make to other people depend upon something we take for granted- our ability to put feelings into the sound of a word.

Do you believe yourself to be highly empathetic? If so, would you contribute it to, or link it to, your ability to change the tone of your voice? Do you think having the ability to change your tone is valuable?




Pic 1:

Pic 2:

2 thoughts on “An Empathic Phenomenon: Prosody

  1. ccallowa

    It is so interesting to hear that we shift the way that we speak to put emphasis on certain words and syllables, to convey emotion. I had no clue that even if we never noticed, our voice mirrors our emotions. Maybe this even relates a bit to theater and how people in theater tend to emphasize their speech/certain words in order for the audience to easily understand the emotion that they are trying to convey. And that is also maybe how the best actors are determined, who can make the words that they are supposed to speak, mirror the emotion that the director is intending that character to have the most. It is not something I had thought about until reading your blog post! I have never stopped to think that my emotions mirror my language, but that is all that acting is about! Great post!

  2. cwehner

    Wow, this is a FASCINATING post! I’ve never fully thought about how tone of voice is so important to empathy, but it’s so true that it is. I’ve really see the effects of this when tone of voice is impossible to create — in email or text, for example. When my best friend and I first went off to separate colleges, we started to have more experiences of disagreements and getting feelings hurt and stuff. It took me a few months, but eventually I realized that a big part of the problem was that we couldn’t hear tone! We had very different texting styles and often interpreted each other’s messages differently than they were intended. As a result, we had a lot of misunderstandings. It’s really cool that there’s scientific evidence that supported the conclusion that we eventually came to — tone is critical!

Comments are closed.