A phrase is a line of music that presents a complete idea. It is quite an ambiguous term, and there are many variations possible, however phrasing is crucial to making music as it tells us how notes relate to one another, rather than being isolated dots on a page. The concept itself is very familiar to us as we speak in phrases on a daily basis. We understand that to speak a phrase/sentence/idea convincilngly and clearly we have to have a concept of it before we begin, otherwise it might come out a bit haphazard. When I was in high school, the English class would read through Shakespeare plays and various students would get assigned roles as the others followed along. I was really into theatre at the time, so when I was given a role to speak I would be constantly jumping ahead to read my part and prepare the phrasing before it was my turn to speak. If I didn’t get that preparation time then I would often stumble on words, give them the wrong inflection, and get the pacing all wrong.
The same thing can happen if you don’t think about phrasing in music. If it is just a series of little connected moments then it will be hard for the listener to know how it all makes sense together. Similar to Shakespeare, notated language might not be entirely comfortable for you right now, so it is important to take time specifically to look at the phrasing.
Composers and editors are often doing their best to help delineate phrases and they mark out the connections with big long arches like this:
If you ever see one of these, then give the editor a big pat on the back because they have done you a big favor. If the phrasing is not marked in, it is a wonderful idea for you to sit down away from the guitar and mark up your score. Phases can span large sections and run on quite a while, or they can sometimes be quite brief. They can also elide with one another (one finishes where the other begins) Luckily for us, phrases are usually pretty clear, at least once you get used to identifying them. In the example above we have a pair of phrases that compliment one another. You could call this pairing “call and answer”.
In classical music you will often have two phrases that act as a somewhat ‘Call and Answer” relationship. These phrase pairs are often defined by the first ending in an imperfect phrase (the dominant chord or V chord, for example the chord of G in the Key of C) and the second, ‘answering’ phrase will end in a perfect cadence (V going to I – dominant to tonic – eg. G to C) If you hear enough of these phrases you will start to recognize them as a listener and you won’t even have to see the score!
Let’s have a look at one by Carulli:
This example has two nicely balanced four measure phrases. The first phrase ends on a dominant harmony (the notes spell out most of the D7 chord in the key of G) and the second phrase finishes on the tonic chord of G major. This example is nice and balanced. In the classical style you will often find phrases that are two, four, eight, or sixteen measures long. These phrases can then be subdivided into other parts, but we will talk about them later.
Now, if we take the same passage of music, and consider the phrases to overlap one another, or to ‘elide’, then we get a somewhat different shaping of the music. In this case, the D and C lead back in to the next complimenting phrase and it give an almost up-beat effect. Both phrasings are ‘correct’ but they have different outcomes. And therein we find the wonderful world of phrasing and its possibilities. Just like the meanings of spoken sentences can be changed by commas, so can musical phrases have variation in meaning and cohesion.
As I mentioned, phrases can often be balanced, even quite symmetrical, but in other cases it can take some detective work to figure it all out. I remember a lot of chamber music rehearsals, especially with more complex 20th Century music, that dedicated discussions to agreeing on where the phrasing was. It really is an important thing to understand and decipher, it will make the music more sensical and enjoyable for both the performer and the audience.
If you liked this lesson, have a look at: L217 Sentence Structure in Music