The principle of distinctive and contrastive coherence of prosody


Rodero, E. (2015). The Principle of Distinctive and Contrastive Coherence of Prosody in Radio News: An Analysis of Perception and Recognition. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 39 (1), 79-92, DOI: 10.1007/s10919-014-0201-5.


The prosodic features of a message are a key factor in the transmission of information by radio. Some authors have demonstrated that perception and proper comprehension of radio news depend largely on the intonation, stress and speech rate used by the broadcaster. The aim of this study, therefore, is to determine the degrees of perception and recognition of information broadcast by radio when the prosodic features used in the transmission are modified. The main conclusion reached is that there is indeed a relationship between the prosodic combination employed and the way in which such information is perceived and recognized and, providing that the prosodic features observe the principle of distinctive and contrastive coherence, the information is perceived positively and recognition is highest.

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Significance of the project

The results of this study contribute to the enhancement of research into the use of prosodic features in radio news presentation and confirm that listener perception and recognition are influenced by the intonation, stress and speech rate employed by the broadcaster in the presentation. These results are of great importance for the achievement of optimum processing of information in radio broadcasting. The radio news format in itself presents the listener with a complex coding task since it involves transmitting data-rich messages in a short space of time. It is, therefore, especially important that the way in which these data are presented should aid the listener in correctly assimilating the message. Consequently, the results of this study should prompt radio stations to reflect on the way in which they currently present news in order to ensure that this form of radio communication is truly effective and comprehensible to listeners. But the findings of this study can also be applied to improve the processing of audio message complexity across platforms (e.g. radio, TV audio tracks, audio on the Web, podcasts or public and interpersonal communication). Lastly, other potential areas could be benefited with the results: the political communication, or educational activities or processes where the prosody acquires a relevant function, as language learning.

Goals of the Project

Some authors have demonstrated that content comprehension of a radio message is enhanced when this content is presented by vocally trained broadcasters. This is of particular importance in radio news programmes, where the broadcaster’s voice is the main medium of expression of a message. Therefore, the degree to which the broadcaster commands prosodic skills such as intonation, stress and speech rate may determine whether a discourse is conveyed sufficiently effectively to ensure that the listener assimilates the data presented. The aim of this study is to determine the degrees of perception and recognition of information broadcast by radio when the prosodic features used in the transmission are modified.

Main Results

The data show that the intonation/stress and the speech rate proposed in this study as a model do in fact configure the prosodic combination which obtains best results regarding perception and recognition and, thus, the principle of distinctive and contrastive coherence is upheld. When a linguistically correct intonation is employed, according to the content of the message, and this is combined with stress on the significant words, participants receive a more positive perception and more details are remembered. 

The explanation for this appears obvious: firstly, this prosodic combination favours more positive listener perception because, by avoiding continual emphasis, the delivery sounds more natural. In fact, the naturalness is precisely one of the most salient factors in this study. Secondly, as it is linguistically correct, it conveys a greater sense of credibility, as the findings show. Lastly, this combination is deemed more comprehensible because it is more in keeping with the information content, stresses only significant words and favours the differentiation between relevant and accessory information. This is why the participants were evaluated as being especially intelligible.

In contrast, the prosodic combination used in real bulletins proved to be the least well perceived and recognized. This is also logical since it employs circumflex intonation, with regular pitch and emphatic stress, which occur independently of the message’s content. These features, therefore, produce a prosodic incoherence, eliminating the distinctive and contrastive functions. Participants’ evaluation in terms of perception is not positive because acoustically this combination produces the familiar news-reading pitch: a kind of chant, whose effect is heightened by its continued, emphatic stress. This leads participants to perceive it as superficial because it is unnatural for them, its recurrent emphatic focus making it unpleasant to the ear.

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