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Prosody - The “Melody” of our Prose

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

One of the signs that our nervous system is re-setting itself from distress to normal or resting regulation is YAWNING. Very often the first thing that happens when we return from trauma to a safe space is the tension release of a YAWN.

I like to imagine that this baby was crying and then got held and rocked (touch) whilst gentle soothing sounds and words (prosody) were used by a loving parent. Once placed back in the cot, the all-important yawn is released. Trauma has been discharged. The nervous system has re-set. Rest is all that is needed for complete healing, right now. That is the moment this picture captures so beautifully.

Long before babies can understand the meaning of the words you use, they totally “get” the sound of your voice. You see, the emotional ‘feel’ of our interaction is not only conveyed by touch, but also by our prosody - the musicality of our speech.

The musicality of the human voice has a profound effect on the nervous system.* You can see this instantly in the change of tone that people use when talking to a young baby or a pet. Where talking therapies have proved effective with people in distress, I suspect it is far more likely to be because of prosody than the content of anything said.

The content and meaning of our words fail when people are in a state of trauma. They cannot really make sense of our words. This also explains why it can be so difficult to “talk someone down” out of this highly reactive trauma-brain-state. Only the musical vibrations of the voice and the physical sensations of touch have any real impact on this part of the brain.

This part of the nervous system (limbic brain) only works at a “felt” vibrational and energetic level, not a cognitive one. What we really need to do before trying to reason with them is to simply…

Soothe them with the gentle "vibrational touch" of our voice.

Softening our tone of voice and our postural demeanour to signal safety is far more beneficial than the meaning of the actual words themselves. We must become like “horse-whisperers”.


My favourite word in the whole English dictionary…

* Kykyri, Karvonen et al (2015) “Soft Prosody and Embodied Attunement in Therapeutic Interaction: A Multi-method Case Study of a Moment of Change” Journal of Constructivist Psychology Volume 30, 2017 - Issue 3

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