Phrases in music are the equivalent of sentences in a written language. They differ from a motive in music (motif) as they are a complete thought. However, they are not a whole story.
Music uses phrases in a similar way to punctuation in English. We use punctuation to help us understand sentences, while phrases enable us to make sense of melodies.
Just imagine if I gave you a piece of text which had no full stops, commas or paragraphs. Then I asked you to read the story on that page to an audience. It would be a tall order.
It would be tough to read the story convincingly. You would probably want to grab a pencil before you started and put in the commas, full stops and paragraphs.
It’s the same in music. It’s much harder to play a piece expressively and convince an audience of your message if you can’t identify the phrases.
Music phrases provide the shape to sections, which in turn give structure to the whole work.
According to the Oxford dictionary of music a phrase is
“Short section of a composition into which the music, whether vocal or instrumental seems naturally to fall”.
So It doesn’t matter if they are orchestral phrases, guitar phrases, piano or song phrases understanding and recognising them is essential.
Types of musical phrases
There are many ways to describe phrases. In general, there are two categories, regular phrasing and irregular phrasing.
Regular phrasing is when the phrase length is the same throughout the piece. In this scenario, phrases are usually two or four bars in length.
Recurring phrasing could also come under this heading. A recurring phrase is a leitmotif which repeats and is related to a character, place or idea.
Leitmotifs are used in opera to unify the work and tell the story without using words.
The operas of Wagner are a great example of this type of phrasing. Below is an example taken from his opera Die Walküre, the second of four operas that make up the Ring Cycle. The Ride of the Valkyries comes at the beginning of act two.
The opposite of regular phrasing is irregular phrasing whereby the phrase lengths are different in length. The opening of Chopin’s Ballade Op 23 No1 begins with a three-bar phrase followed by a two-bar phrase. You could also argue that this is one complete five-bar phrase.
Irregular phrasing in music was a favourite of composers in the romantic period as composers needed a greater sense of freedom.
In the classical period, musical structures such as sonata form were commonplace, but these forms were too restricted for the romantics—long, expressive melodies with a variety of melodic ideas were more favoured.
In the romantic era, chromatic passagework and more advanced harmonies gave greater tonal colour to the emotion or narrative content of the music.
This level of expressiveness stretched beyond the confinements of the classical forms. Hence phrases needed greater freedom and fewer cadential points.
How to identify phrases in music
Identifying the musical phrases of songs are a great place to start when learning to recognise them. The text effortlessly defines the phrases related to music. For example
Three blind mice,
Three blind mice,
See how they run,
at the end of each line, there is a natural place to take a breath. However, we know that this is not the end of the rhyme, as there is no full stop.
Similarly, the first line (three blind mice) would represent a phrase, not the end of the piece.
Identifying phrases for music in various time signatures.
Most musicians would agree that you can identify the end of a phrase by a cadence. Musical cadences represent the commas and full stops. A cadence is a progression of two chords, which either makes the music feel finished or unfinished.
The piece below has four two-bar phrases which are easy to identify as each one begins with an anacrusis (an upbeat). It is common in music for the start of each phrase to begin in the same or similar way as you can see in the example below.
You can learn more about 6/8 time signature here.
The following waltz in three four-time also has an anacrusis at the start of each phrase. However, the length of the phrasing is four bars.
In both the above examples, the anacrusis makes it easy for us to identify the phrases. For music that starts on the beat though how do we know where the phrase begins and ends?
Let’s have a look at piece now that doesn’t have an anacrusis. The Minuet by Mozart below has two four-bar phrases.
Two things help define the classical music phrases of this piece. The first is the clear cadence at the end of bar four.
The second is the use of rhythmic repetition or imitation. The start of the second phrase while not the same as the first, is similar. In classical music, this is often the case, although not always.
Antecedent and consequent music phrases
These terms describe question and answer phrases. Composers use them in all genres, mainly when there is a prominent melody. Hence you’ll find examples in pop, jazz, rock and classical music to name but a few.
Antecedent and consequent phrases often, but not always begin in the same way. When we hear them, they sound similar; however, we instantly recognise that they are different. Why?
The antecedent phrase leaves the listener abandoned as the music feels unfinished. If a performer were only to play the antecedent phrase and then walk off stage, the listener would feel unsatisfied. Below is the antecedent phrase at the start of Mozart’s Symphony No 40
There is an expectation that the music will continue. The underlying harmony is responsible for this as an antecedent phrase in music doesn’t end on the tonic. Instead, there is an imperfect cadence or half close as some people call it.
The consequent phrase brings the conclusion, the perfect or authentic cadence at the end satisfies the listener. Here is the consequent phrase to Mozart’s opening of his Symphony No 40.
The consequent phrase compliments the antecedent phrase when you hear them together; you know they belong as one together.
Parallel Consequent Phrase
If the answer to the antecedent phrase begins with the same rhythm and pitches, the response is called a parallel consequent. An example of this would be the Ode to Joy theme in Beethoven’s Symphony No 9.
You could describe the antecedent and consequent phrases as one long-phrase. They are often used as a repeated phrase in music to form a theme within a section.
What are balanced phrases in music
The antecedent and consequent phrase are an example of balanced phrases. The consequent phrase balances and is almost symmetrical to the antecedent phrase apart from the cadence point.
The two phrases together make what’s called a period in music. The period is often doubled to form a musical section.
Extended phrases often reiterate a motive of a phrase before the cadence, or where you would expect the cadence to fall. The phrase is therefore extended, meaning the cadence is delayed.
Another way composers extend the phrase is by repeating the final cadence or prolonging the sense of closure towards the end of a phrase, section or piece.
Musical phrasing techniques
When you can identify phrases, the next step is to shape them while playing. All phrases have a centre or a climactic point that the musical energy directs itself too.
The notes are at the centre of climax, or they go/ come from this point. The energy that disperses from this climatic point defines the shape of the phrase shape.
In the opening of Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata movement three, the centre of the phrase is the Bb marked with a star in the excerpt below.
How do I shape a phrase in music?
There are many ways that you can shape a phrase in music and often there are several options.
The easiest way to shape a phrase is to use dynamics. The most common way is to crescendo towards the centre of a phrase and then diminuendo afterwards.
Tapering the ends of phrases with musical control is something that takes years of practice and lots of listening.
The best way to improve on a wind, brass or string instrument is by practising long notes which crescendo or diminuendo. Aim to keep the tonal quality the same no matter what dynamic you are playing.
The skill is to make the change in dynamics as gradual as possible. Try and crescendo to your loudest or softest point without losing the tonal quality of the note.
On the piano or guitar, you need to practice the hand and arm movements at the start of the phrase. Small gestures and movements can help ensure the phrase contours are controlled and exquisitely managed.
You can also highlight the centre of a phrase by a sudden change in dynamic. It can be effective to use a diminuendo as you approach the centre of the phrase and then use an unexpected accent to highlight the energetic point.
Rubato is another way that musicians shape phrases to describe musical emotion. The tempo gets slightly quicker towards the centre of the phrase and slows back down after the central point.
Each phrase may have a different type of ebb and flow depending upon the energy the player is trying to create.
Using vibrato is also a fantastic way of adding shape and definition within a phrase. You might widen the vibrato or increase the speed as the energy intensifies.
How do you choose what to do?
There is no easy answer to this as one of the great things about music is that its open to interpretation. A professional musician will make something feel natural and shape phrases in a way that is unique to them.
The more you listen to music, the deeper your musical understanding of phrase shaping and tonal colour will become.
If you are at the start of your musical journey, keep things simple. Try doing a crescendo to the midpoint of the phrase and diminuendo towards the end.
If you’re a little more advanced, you could add some vibrato or rubato if the music lends itself to those techniques.
Summary of phrases in music
Don’t be afraid to experiment with phrasing. If you don’t like something you can always change it again. No two musical performances are the same, but the best ones are those in which the performer commits and believes in what they are doing.
Musicians of this calibre can draw their listeners in and capture their hearts. Still, they’ve practised for many hours to achieve this.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you feel you’ve still got along way to go. Start with a piece you know and can play well and experiment with your beats, bars and phrases.
If you want to make progress every practice session and take your excitement, motivation and level of progress to new heights. Check out the Learn the secret to Effective Practice mini-course.
Analysing the music and marking on things such as phrasing before you begin learning a new piece is one of the effective practice techniques I highly recommend.
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