When you begin to take your first acting classes, you may find that the coach sometimes refers to ‘prosody.’ This refers to the way an actor uses the voice, both to be understood clearly and to enhance the meaning and emotion of their words. Here’s a closer look at what the term means and why it is an important skill for an actor to possess.
What is the definition of prosody?
Prosody refers to the rhythm, stress and intonation of speech. The human voice is an instrument, and prosody is sometimes referred to as the musicality of speech. It can be modulated in tone, volume, pitch, tempo, and so on to bring an extra dimension to the literal meaning of the words.
This can help to communicate the social and emotional context of the drama in a more nuanced way than with words alone, and bring about a higher state of psychological truth. Here are some ways actors use prosody.
Deeper emotional expression
Prosody is used to help convey the emotional state of the character, such as anger, sadness, joy, fear, or excitement. For example, when a person is afraid, they might speak in a fast, high pitched voice, and when they are angry they might raise their voice and speak with harsh abrupt rhythms.
To enhance character traits
Characters may have distinctive speech patterns that help to communicate their personality or social or geographical background. This may be through a strong regional accent, or a particular inflection or pace of speaking that may indicate that a character is laid back, highly strung, warm, irritable, and so on.
To enhance storytelling
The art of prosody is used to help unfold the drama for the benefit of the audience. It can control the pace of a scene, be used to build tension or suspense, or provide moments of light relief. This helps to keep the audience engaged with the story so that they understand the context of what is being said and are keenly anticipating the next development.
To bring stage presence
Stage presence refers to an actor’s ability to command an audience. This can be done through physicality and body language, and also through the use of the voice. An actor who has full command of their vocal range and can modulate their tone, expression, volume, tempo and so on will be a more compelling performer than one with poor prosody.
To widen the range of an actor
An actor who is capable of adapting their prosody to suit a wide range of characters will have more choice of future roles. It will enable them to more easily portray characters from different social, cultural, or geographical backgrounds, or tackle more psychologically and emotionally demanding roles.
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