Using pitch and speed in storytelling
Pitch is the height or depth of the tone used when telling a story.
So for example, a mouse might have a high pitched squeaky voice, but can still express their anger or happiness in their tone within that range.
An elephant might have a very low pitched voice but can still express their excitement or fear in the tone of their voice while retaining that low deep pitch.
Laughter within a story is very important and when combined with volume, really will illuminate the range of different emotions of the person laughing.
The witch’s laugh is either high pitched and loud, a confident and arrogant laugh.
The child’s high pitched but quiet laugh is a secret laugh behind their hand.
Volume without pitch will only illustrate half the picture, so play with pitch to spice up your characters and give them defined personalities.
Generally, sloping the pitch of your speech up slightly can also bring a sense of mystery, or in dialogue, it indicates a question. It can also tell your child that you are looking for them to tell you what happens next, if it is a story they are familiar with.
Suspense and climax
Pitch is also a great tool to build suspense and climaxes.
We’ve all heard a horse racing commentary and if we put the speed of it aside (see the next section on speed), the commentator starts off at a reasonably gently tone and speed and as the horses gather speed and progress down the course, the commentary becomes higher and higher pitched as the speed of the horses gets faster and faster and as the tension gets tighter and tighter until the climactic photo finish…
…And we can all breathe again and allow our heart rates to start to relax.
This is the same strategy that can be reused in storytelling to build the suspense and excitement as an important event within the story approaches.
Children love this!
My daughter loves the story “We’re going on a bear hunt” which has a long and slow and fun build up followed by a rapid and exciting run away from the bear they find. It’s huge fun and one of her favourites and one she will recite to me on walks.
Similarly, in a story, when they hear a markedly increasing pitch they will begin to either giggle or sit up straight beside you in excitement as they become totally emotionally and mentally involved, anticipating the big climax.
A good story keeps a good interesting pace, but there are times when slowing your speed right down can do wonders for your story.
When your child hears you change from a regular to a markedly slow pace, they know instantly that something is afoot, and will listen attentively to your every word.
Slowing down your vocal speed emphasises the suspense, the fear, the sadness or the wisdom of an old granny. Speeding up your voice is a great and funny way to give a special character a funny voice such as a crazy squirrel, and will keep your child enraptured and giggling.
Variations in the speed of your story also keep your child engaged.
We all know children have relatively short attention spans, and they require variety so mix and match different speeds, tones and pitches to keep them interested or to refocus their attention.
If your child is as snug as a bug in a rug, it’s probably not the best time to tell them a fast paced story as this will make them more alert, and subsequently – awake. A regular or slow pace will encourage the atmosphere of calm, helping your child to relax and consequently, to sleep.
And just as the Big Bad Wolf was about to eat Red Riding Hood….
Savour the moment as your child looks deep into your eyes, hanging on your every word and dying to hear your next one.
A well placed pause is a fantastic device for building suspense, intensifying their wonderment and their enjoyment of the story. Be careful though, if a story is “scary” to a young child and you pause, your child may in fact react badly as they are unable to deal with their nervous emotion building up.
Young children need a happy ending, to restore their sense of security and belief that the world is always set to right. If your young child is unsure that what follows the pause is going to do this, they may in fact start crying before you’ve even told them the ending.
You know your child best, so judge what age you believe they can cope with this.
Older children who have some experience of negative feelings cope far better with this, and love the “not knowing”. However, if your story is an adventure, a comedy or a fantastical tale, the well placed pause is your secret weapon and guarantees your child’s delight.
- Practice, practice practice. I know it’s stupid to say that, but by now you’ll have read quite a lot on here so it’s important that you practice as you go or your kids won’t get the full benefit of you doing this research and learning.
- Choose a regular story or choose a new book and draw out those moments of suspense or quiet.
- Can you also use your speed and pitch to emphasise different meanings in stories you’ve read before?