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Phrase (music)

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Phrase (music)

Phrase-group of three four bar phrases in Mozart's Piano Sonata in F, K. 332, first movement.[1] About this sound   
Period built of two five bar phrases in Haydn's Feldpartita.[2] About this sound   

In music and music theory, phrase and phrasing are concepts and practices related to grouping consecutive melodic notes, both in their composition and performance. A musical work is typically made up of a melody that consists of numerous consecutive phrases. The notation used is similar to a tie and a slur.

Musical phrase (theoretical concept)

A musical phrase (Greek: φράση "sentence, expression"; see also strophe) is a unit of musical meter that has a complete musical sense of its own,[3] built from figures, motifs, and cells and combining to form melodies, periods and larger sections;[4] or the length in which a singer or instrumentalist can play in one breath.

The terms, like sentence, verse etc., have been adopted into the vocabulary of music from linguistic syntax.[5] Though the analogy between the musical and the linguistic phrase is often made, still the term "is one of the most ambiguous in music....there is no consistency in applying these terms nor can there be...only with melodies of a very simple type, especially those of some dances, can the terms be used with some consistency."[6]

John D. White defines a phrase as, "the smallest musical unit which conveys a more or less complete musical thought. Phrases vary in length and are terminated at a point of full or partial repose, which is called a cadence."[7] [9]

Bar-line shift's effect on metric accent: first two lines vs. second two lines[10] About this sound    or About this sound   .

In common practice phrases are often four bars or measures long[11] culminating in a more or less definite cadence.[12] A phrase will end with a weaker or stronger cadence, depending on whether it is an antecedent phrase or a consequent phrase, the first or second half of a period.

A phrase-group is, "a group of three or more phrases linked together without the two-part feeling of a period," or, "a pair of consecutive phrases in which the first is a repetition of the second or in which, for whatever reason, the antecedent-consequent relationship is absent."[13]

Phrase rhythm is the rhythmic aspect of phrase construction and the relationships between phrases, and "is not at all a cut-and-dried affair, but the very lifeblood of music and capable of infinite variety. Discovering a work's phrase rhythm is a gateway to its understanding and to effective performance." The term was popularized by William Rothstein's Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music. Techniques include overlap, lead-in, extension, expansion, reinterpretation and elision.

The act of shaping a phrase during performance is called musical phrasing and considered an art.

Musical phrasing

Phrasing refers to an expressive shaping of music, and relates to the shaping of notes in time. Phrasing relates to the manner of playing the individual notes of a particular group of consecutive notes and the way they are weighted and shaped relative to one another. It does not refer to the idealized note values/durations as represented in sheet music, but to the multitude of deviations that the performer needs to make from sheet music if a performance is to be expressive in a particular style and culturally aware. An example may be an acceleration of a group of notes, but there are many more. This shaping of notes is creatively performed by the musician with the aim of expressing (feelings), and can be distinguished by the listener – not only factually, but in music, as emotional expression.

Being an expressive activity of creative musicians, the question of how to shape a group of notes in time cannot be (and is not) exactly specified. Giuseppe Cambini had this to say about violin playing:

The bow can express the affections of the soul: but besides there being no signs that indicate them, such signs, even were one to invent them, would become so numerous that the music, already too full of indications, would become a formless mass to the eyes, almost impossible to decipher. I should consider myself fortunate if I could only get a student to hear, through a small number of examples, the difference between bad and mediocre, mediocre and good, and good and excellent, in the diversity of expressions which one may give to the same passage.[14]
—"Nouvelle Méthode théorique et pratique pour le violon". Paris, Naderman (c. 1803). by Giuseppe Cambini

Usually, the shaping of notes in time is such that meaning ("affections of the soul") is expressed. In general, particular musical thoughts appear in a group of notes following each other, forming a phrase: a particular part of a melody. These notes belong together and the melodic phrase is then shaped expressively: tension can be built up by accelerating; particular expressive pivot points or emphasis can shaped by holding notes longer (fermata); slowing down can be used to end phrases; rubato, etc.

Phrasing is sometimes also taken to include aspects of musical shaping, other than the timing of melodies, such as articulation and dynamics, etc.

It can also be influenced by lyrics on the song in relation to the piece of musical phrase in sheet music.

Intuitive versus analytical approach to phrase/phrasing

There are two ways/manners in which phrase/phrasing can be approached: intuitive, or analytical.

There are two schools of thought on phrasing, one more intuitive, the other more analytical. The intuitive school uses a verbal model, equating the function of phrasing with that of punctuation in language. Thus, said Chopin to a student, "he who phrases incorrectly is like a man who does not understand the language he speaks."
—Nancy Toff[15]
The question how far the analytical and critical study of a work of art aids or hinders the appreciation of its more emotional and spiritual factors is one that has been asked over and over[...]
—Stewart Macpherson[16]

Often the analytical method is more theoretical and related to the term phrase (analysing a phrase), while the intuitive approach is more related to the term phrasing.

Problems linked with an analytical approach to phrase, occur particularly when the analytical approach is based only on the search for objective information, or (as is often the case) only concerned with the score:

The reliance on the score for information about temporal structures reflects a more profound analytical difficulty. Structural information gleaned from the score is visually apprehended and as such is predisposed to visualist models of structure. These models are premised on symmetry and balance and on a timeless notion of "objective" structure. [...] Temporal and aurally-apprehended structures are denied reality because they cannot be said to "exist" in the way that spatial and visually apprehended structures do. [...] Musical investigations exhibit the Western prejudice toward visualism in the dependence on visual symmetry and balance. Information about structure from listening experience is suspect because it is considered "subjective" and is opposed to "objective" information from the score.
—F. Joseph Smith[17]


  1. ^ White, John D. (1976). The Analysis of Music, p.43-44. ISBN 0-13-033233-X.
  2. ^ White (1976), p.44.
  3. ^ Falk (1958), page 11, Larousse cited in Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990). Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987). Translated by Carolyn Abbate (1990). ISBN 0-691-02714-5.
  4. ^ 1980 New Grove cited in Nattiez 1990.
  5. ^ 1958 Encyclopédie Fasquelle cited in Nattiez 1990.
  6. ^ Stein, Deborah (2005). Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517010-5.
  7. ^ White (1976), p.34. Italics original.
  8. ^ Winold, Allen (1975). "Rhythm in Twentieth-Century Music", Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music. Wittlich, Gary (ed.). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-049346-5.
  9. ^ Burkhart, Charles. "The Phrase Rhythm of Chopin's A-flat Major Mazurka, Op. 59, No. 2" cited in Stein 2005.
  10. ^ Newman, William S. (1995). Beethoven on Beethoven: Playing His Piano Music His Way, p.170-71. ISBN 0-393-30719-0.
  11. ^ Larousse, Davie 1966, 19 cited in Nattiez 1990.
  12. ^ Larousse cited in Nattiez 1990.
  13. ^ White (1976), p.46.
  14. ^ "Nouvelle Méthode théorique et pratique pour le violon" by Giuseppe Cambini (ref)
  15. ^ Toff, Nancy (1996). The Flute Book: A Complete Guide for Students and Performers, p.150. Second edition. ISBN 978-0-19-510502-5.
  16. ^ Macpherson, Stewart (1908). Form in Music quoted in Dale, Catherine (2003). Music Analysis in Britain in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, p.123. ISBN 978-1-84014-273-0.
  17. ^ Smith, F. Joseph (1989). Understanding the Musical Experience, p.121-124. ISBN 978-2-88124-204-5.

See also

External links

  • How to Understand Music: A Concise Course in Musical Intelligence and Taste (1881) by William Smythe Babcock Mathews
  • What we hear in music; a course of study in music history and appreciation (c. 1921) by Anne Shaw Faulkner
  • Aspects of phrasing in the context of singing (The American history and encyclopedia of music; 1908; William Lines Hubbard)
  • The Art of Phrasing (Dwight's Journal of Music; 1878) (altern.: 1, 2)
  • Phrasing from Lessons in vocal expression by Samuel Silas Curry
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