What are Phrases in music?

What are Phrases in music?

Did you know that music is a language? Just like English and many others, music has its own set of rules, like grammar and syntax. It is rules like these that make music more interesting to listen to. They also make music easier to understand and follow.

When talking about a written or spoken language, you know that it is made up of smaller, component parts. Things like letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs are used to convey a message. In music, "phrases" also are utilized.

What Is a Musical Phrase?

Letters are the basic building blocks of all languages. Similarly, notes are the building blocks of music.

When you combine notes together, you make "words" that are called things like chords and intervals. These "words" then are put together to make sentences.

In music, a phrase is the equivalent of a sentence. When it is heard on its own, a phrase makes complete musical sense. This means that the phrase has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Moreover, it is possible to distinguish one phrase from the others that surround it.

If you are a fan of classical music, then you already may know that phrases in this genre and others are nearly always four bars in length. Each one may end with a cadence. However, these rules are not hard and fast. A phrase may be either shorter or longer than four bars.

What is essential is that the phrase is understood to be a single entity that is independent from the other parts of the melody around it.

Let's use a familiar example like "The Itsy Bitsy Spider." If you write out the lyrics of this childhood tune, it looks like this:

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.

Notice that each line of this song ends with either a comma or a period. Thus, each line is considered a phrase. Thanks to the punctuation, each line is understood to express a complete thought. Songs that have lyrics frequently are written such that a complete musical phrase is in alignment with the lyrics.

How Composers Make Each Phrase Feel "Finished"

Songwriters have numerous tricks up their sleeves when it comes to communicating the end of a phrase. For instance, a composer can:

  • Let the chords resolve to the tonic
  • Insert a musical rest
  • Use sentence-dividing or sentence-ending punctuation such as commas, periods or semi-colons
  • Add a rhythmic cadence
  • Insert a slur or tie across a series of notes

If you want to identify a phrase in a song, it may be helpful to sing the lyrics. For instance, take a look at "Row Row Row Your Boat." The first line of the song is "Row, row, row your boat." Quite sensibly, this constitutes the first phrase. It doesn't make sense to simply sing "row, row, row." It feels unfinished. When you add "your boat," then there is a nice sense of completion.

Phrases that Begin on the Upbeat

Musical bars generally consist of two, three, four, six, nine, or 12 beats, though there are some time signatures that consist of five, seven, or eleven beats for each bar.

The first beat in each bar is called the downbeat. The final beat is the upbeat. When a phrase is begun on the upbeat, then beats in that melody are described as "anacrusis."

You also might hear it referred to as a "pickup," which is a little more friendly and approachable. A pickup happens when the melody begins before the harmony or other accompanying material.

One well-known example of this is the song "Happy Birthday." The word "happy" begins close to the end of the first bar (the pickup), while the word "birthday" comes on the second bar's downbeat, or first beat.

You further might be familiar with this phenomenon in the Beatles' song, "Yellow Submarine." Each phrase in the song begins with an anacrusis. How can you tell? The way that the vocals are heard one beat before the guitar in each phrase gives it away.

Other Phrases: Antecedent and Consequent

As you probably already know, "antecedent" means "before," while "consequent" means "after." Accordingly, antecedent-consequent phrases occur when two phrases are placed side by side or one right after the previous.

Musicians and composers may refer to this as a "phrase-group." The antecedent is the first phrase, which typically ends with a half cadence or an imperfect cadence. A half cadence does not end on the tonic. Rather, it ends on the V chord. By contrast, an imperfect cadence ends on the tonic but does not do so strongly.

As for the second, or consequent, phrase, it almost always begins with a restatement of the opening part of the antecedent phrase. However, it generally ends on a perfect, strong cadence.

How Are Phrases Marked in Music?

Have you ever looked at a piece of sheet music and noticed a long, curved line that appears to connect certain notes together? Reminiscent of a slur line, these marks indicate that the notes encompassed by the line are one phrase. Thanks to slur markings like these, musicians know to play these notes legato, or in a smooth and connected manner. This is in contrast to "staccato," which tells the musician to play the notes as if they are detached from each other.

As an example, a woodwind musician would use a single breath to play all of the notes in a slur.

Slur lines are helpful because they tell musicians and vocalists which notes in a piece require emphasis and which ones need to be smoothed over.

How Do You Handle Phrases When Playing Music?

It's critical to think of music as being like a conversation. When a musician performs, a conversation between the musician and the audience is taking place. What if the musician spoke in an unvarying monotone? There are no inflections, and the musician never pauses for breath.

The inevitable result is boredom for the audience. They probably also would have a difficult time catching the musician's meaning. Fortunately, music is meant to be played expressively with plenty of shaping and inflection.

Of course, new musicians have considerable difficulty with this. They are focused on hitting the right notes and getting their timing correct. They have not yet attained enough skill to focus on something called "phrasing."

Phrasing is all about shaping the music to give it greater meaning. Some of the ways that experienced musicians use phrasing include:

  • Changing the dynamics within a phrase
  • Adding vibrato to longer notes
  • Sliding into pitches or approaching notes softly
  • Using a syncopated rhythm
  • Adding a ritardando before a key change or at the end of the piece

What About Musical Gestures?

Some pieces of music do not have easily identifiable phrases. However, it may be possible to find musical "gestures" in these pieces. A musical gesture conveys a direction, an idea, or a feeling, and they are quite similar to phrases.

This is akin to the idea of nodding and smiling at someone that you meet on the street. You are making a gesture indicating a greeting and conveying goodwill. Musical gestures are like this. They have clear meaning even when no words are spoken. In music, it is critical for the gesture to be clear. Does it convey joy or sadness? Is it aggressive or passive? Is the gesture a small, separate idea or part of a larger whole?

How Clear Is the Phrase?

All music has phrases or gestures, and these lead the musician and the listener in a musical direction. When talking about musical direction, musicians are referring to the fact that the music goes somewhere. In some pieces, the music is moving forward with plenty of bubbly excitement. In other pieces, the music creeps slowly along to its conclusion. Either way, the piece has direction, and the phrases support this.

This is critical for audience members, especially those who are not seasoned musicians. With phrases and gestures, the audience can make sense of the music. Accordingly, experienced musicians work very hard to perfect their phrasing with each piece of music.

Give Your Children a Musical Introduction

Phrases are just one component of music. If you want your children to be fluent in the language of music, then it makes sense to begin their education early. With the programs at Prodigies Music, it is possible for any child to start discovering the joys of music, and you can learn right along with them.


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