Musical Phrasing: How to Recognize Musical Phrases and What to Do with Them

A musical phrase is a unit of music which has a complete musical sense of its own. You can identify these easily without knowing any musical theory by listening to a segment of music and asking yourself "Does that feel finished?" Let me give you an example. Think of the lyrics and tune of the children's song "The Itsy Bitsy Spider".

The itsy bitsy spider walked up the waterspout,
Down came the rain and washed the spider out,
Out came the sun and dried up all the rain,
And the itsy bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.

Each of the punctuation marks in the lyrics lines up with a sense of completion in the tune. When a song has lyrics, the composer commonly completes musical statements or phrases such that they line up with the lyrics.

Composers use various methods to convey the sense of "finish" for each musical phrase. Here are ways to identify the conclusion of a phrase. The piece might use one, several, or none of the devices listed.

  1. The chords resolve to the tonic or I chord. A very common lead into the final chord is either the V chord or V7 chord. You don't need to know music theory to be able to know this. Your ear will immediately identify this because you will feel at rest and that the music has reached its end.
  2. There is a slur or tie over a series of notes. The end of the slur is end of the phrase.
  3. There is a musical rest.
  4. There is a rhythmic cadence. A rhythmic cadence is a change in the length of the notes, perhaps quarter notes ending with a half note or any series of notes leading to a note of longer length.
  5. The most common phrase length is 4 measures long. However, phrases can be any length. An analogy would be a short declarative sentence - "Stop!" "Come here." Musical phrases can be as short.
  6. If there are lyrics, look for sentence dividing or ending punctuation such as commas, semi-colons, colons, periods, exclamation or questions marks.
  7. Try singing the melody line. Wherever it feels natural to take a breath or you absolutely need to take a breath is most probably the end of a phrase.
  8. Look in the base line for movement and then a longer length note. An example would be a series of half notes followed by two quarter notes followed by a whole note.

Once you have identified where the phrases are in a piece of music, the next question is what to do with them. One way to think of music is as a conversation between the musician and his audience. If you speak in a monotone using no inflection in your voice, your listeners quickly become bored and also, interestingly, lose some of their comprehension about your meaning. The same is true in music. If you play all the notes in a piece of music with no other shaping than what is written on the sheet music, the music lacks interest. You've heard it played this way, I'm sure. Think of beginning players who are struggling just to get the timing and pitches correct. Their version of the tune frequently sounds rather boring. However, the same piece played by an experienced player will be shaped to reflect the ideas of the composer and the musician himself. That difference is called "phrasing". Phrasing consists of the musical shaping done to bring meaning to the phrase. Here are ways to increase the meaning and beauty of the musical phrase.

  1. Within the phrase, change the dynamics. For instance, you can swell the volume as you go to the middle of the phrase and back off slightly as you come to its conclusion. You can move your body to help you accomplish this, making it a natural extension of your playing or singing. Lean in toward your music or your audience as you play to the middle of the phrase and then return to an upright position as you reach the conclusion.
  2. Sing or play with vibrato added to the notes of longer time value. This approach works well on half or whole notes. It adds interest to the note. You can also "crescendo" (increase in volume) and "diminuendo" (decrease in volume) while you play the note.
  3. If the song is romantic or a lullaby, try adding a feeling of tenderness to the melody. Make your approach to notes soft, slide into some of the pitches, and/or end a phrase with a wispy decrease in volume so it sounds like you are whispering the final part of the note.
  4. If the song genre is the blues, jazz, rock-n-roll, swing or gospel, syncopate the rhythms. You don't need to change the starting point of every note, consider altering just the start of the phrase. Add turns to the longer valued notes (a turn is a quick change in pitch up or down by either a half or whole step). You can also "bend" the notes meaning that the pitch starts or ends at a quarter tone rather than the typical half or whole interval. Jazz, blues, and gospel performers often use grace notes at the start of a phrase or a note of longer value than the other notes in a phrase.
  5. Consider adding a "ritardando" (slow down) at the end of the piece or before a change in key. Another idea is to create a "fermata" (hold) before the main musical phrase starts. Then continue "a tempo" (at normal speed).
  6. Freely playing with the timing is called "rubato". Some composers mark a piece this way because they intend the performer to express the melody line freely in time; using the timing indicated on the sheet music as a rough guide to relative timing values. Think about the meaning of the piece and how it makes you feel as you listen to it. Do the notes feel melancholy? Add vibrato, linger on particular notes, add breathiness to your sound, and/or make your sound soft and gentle. Are the notes upbeat and cheerful? Make your sound crisp and precise. Try swinging the beat (by adding syncopation and changing the timing such that note values are in triplets as opposed to normal timing values) if it is jazz, swing, or rock-n-roll. If it is a march, be exactly correct on the timing and bounce the notes a bit (accent each note and make it slightly "staccato" (short)), hit pitches precisely and strongly, make the releases clean.
  7. If you are playing in a band or orchestra, you will be required to follow the direction of the conductor unless you are a featured soloist, in which case the conductor may wish to have you interpret the music and he will direct the other musicians in following your lead. However, even when the conductor is coordinating the group, he or she will often want the musicians to be expressive while they play. Use some of the techniques listed above to add feeling to the way you play the music. Although your timing will be controlled by the conductor, the way you start each note, the release you give it, the breathiness you add or take away, the vibrato you add to held notes, the slight increase and decrease in dynamics that you bring to the phrase will add an additional dimension to the music.

Music is a conversation between the players and the listeners. The sheet music provides an outline of the conversation, like the script for a play provides stage cues and dialogue for the actors. Good musicians add the color and interest, just as good actors bring the lines to life and draw the audience into the play, talented musicians can bring us to tears or make us dance with delight.

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