Principles of Phrasing

A phrase is a musical sentence.

A phrase is like a rainbow—start with less intensity, grow to a high point, taper off intensity at the end.

The art of phrasing involves knowing where the points of higher and lower intensity and relaxation are within a phrase.

These concepts are simple (at least in their basic forms!). But they need to become your musical thinking every minute you are practicing and every second you are performing.

Three Ways to Tell Intensity/Relaxation Within (or between) Phrases

  1. Harmony – Consonance/dissonance.
  2. The "typical" phrase starts with consonant harmony, moves to a point of highest dissonance, and resolves this dissonance at the end.


    * Function of chord (functional harmony)

    * Dissonance/resolution between melody and harmony

  3. Rhythm
  4. The "typical" phrase builds in rhythmic activity (faster notes) then relaxes that activity at the end (longer notes).


    * Rhythmic activity (i.e., faster notes) = more intensity; slower notes = less intensity

    * Strong and weak beats of meter

  5. Melodic contour

The "typical" phrase starts lower in pitch, rises to a high point, and ends on a lower pitch.


* Melodic direction/progression

* Large vs. small melodic leaps

Three Ways to Communicate Intensity/Relaxation in Performance

  1. Dynamics
  2. The "typical" phrase starts softer, crescendos to a high point, and diminuendos to the end.

    Typical uses:

    * Cresc. to show greater intensity; dim. to show lower intensity

    * Accentuate a dissonance, dim. into its resolution

  3. Tempo/Time/Rhythm
  4. The "typical" phrase starts slightly slower, pushes the tempo slightly in the middle, and relaxes (slows) the tempo slightly at the end.

    Typical uses:

    * Push forward the tempo to show greater intensity

    * Hold back the tempo (rit.) to show lessening of intensity.

    * "Agogic" accent – an accent made through time/rhythm. In agogic accent, you highlight a note, not by playing it louder or softer, but by holding it slightly longer or shorter, or making it come slightly before or after it normally would.

  5. Articulation – how connected or separated the notes are

In the "typical" phrase, you connect all the notes of the phrase and lift (take a "breath") at the end of the phrase.

Typical uses:

* Group notes—and separate one group of notes from another group—by the use of legato and staccato (remember that there are an infinite number of gradations between legatissimo and staccatissimo—use them all!)

* The way notes are connected/separated emphasizes and de-emphasizes certain notes and gives notes life and musical meaning—this is the very essence of what is meant by "phrasing"


Phrasing in Real Life

Basic ideas can combine and conflict

* In one phrase, a burst of rhythmic activity leads to the highest note of the phrase, but the strongest point of harmonic dissonance comes half a measure later.

* In another phrase, the highest note comes on a weak beat—the "and" of beat 4.

Which is most important: melodic contour, harmony, or rhythm? Finding the answer in any particular situation requires an exercise of musical judgement. Usually there are a variety of "right" answers—a number of different ways a phrase can be played convincingly. If you listen to ten artist-performers play a particular phrase, you will likely hear ten quite different interpretations.



* You play a particular note louder (dynamics), detached (articulation), and slightly stretch the time between this note and the next note (tempo/agogic accent).

* You create a climax by using overlapping pedal (legato articulation), a crescendo (dynamics), and a slight rallentando (tempo).

* You voice the soprano and bass lines and play the inner voices softer (dynamics). At the same time, you detach all the notes of the bass—carefully keeping them all the same length—and connect the soprano notes with a flowing legatissimo (articulation).

These are typical ways of combining the performer’s three basic musical elements (dynamics, tempo, articulation) to create meaningful musical communication.


Basic Music-making vs. Artistic Music-making

The ideas listed above are basic and simplified "rules of thumb" that can (and should!) be taught to every beginning musician.

Artist-performers understand these ideas about phrasing as basic musical expectations of their audiences. But they can just to play into or against these expectations, and in doing so, they often reach a higher level of artistry. For instance

* The high point of a phrase could be accentuated by playing it softly.

* The tempo could be held back at the high point, rather than pushed forward.

* Tempo, dynamics, articulation, and agogic accent can be manipulated at a level so subtle that the audience is not even consciously aware of their use—only of the effect they create.